There has been wide media coverage of the National Black Canadians Summit held last month in Halifax and attended by 1,200 people but nary a public mention of the pies. So, here’s a praise-break for the homemade blueberry, cherry, apple, and strawberry-rhubarb pies that the Michaëlle Jean Foundation — the host of the event — one day offered on the dessert table.
The lavish spread was laid out directly across from the stunning “Secret Codes” quilt exhibit by African Nova Scotian artists that is now on a national tour.
“Can you believe this?” I overheard one attendee say to another as she spooned a dollop of whipped cream onto her slice of cherry pie. “It’s like being at your grandmama’s house.”
I took my heavenly slice of apple pie and headed to the Telling Our Stories workshop. Resplendent in green t-strap sandals, Oluseye Ogunlesi was among the presenters. A multi-disciplinary artist of Nigerian ancestry, Ogunlesi said that he didn’t understand Black Canadian culture until he visited North Preston. “I was completely embraced by the African Nova Scotian community,” he explained. “I learned about the agrarian roots of the people and their traditions.”
The Ontario resident added that his experiences in North Preston proved pivotal in his creation of “Ploughing Liberty,” an art installation in which he celebrates the Black Loyalist heritage in Nova Scotia through the “twinning” of vintage farm tools with hockey sticks. “I wanted the manual labour that Black Canadians have done for generations to be valued as much as hockey,” he said.
Another panelist, Halifax native Anthony Sherwood, discussed his filmmaking career. Among other works, Sherwood’s eponymous production company released Honour Before Glory (2001), an award-winning docudrama about the all-Black No. 2 Construction Battalion. Last month in Truro, Premier Justin Trudeau delivered an apology to the descendants of the servicemen who suffered blatant anti-Black racism during the First World War. Banned from fighting alongside their white compatriots, the stalwart Black volunteer soldiers — now all deceased — were instead relegated to building roads, clearing trees, and maintaining railroad tracks while deployed in France.
During the ceremony, relatives of the servicemen (among them, Sherwood) were given beribboned replicas of the No. 2 Construction Battalion badges that had once adorned the uniforms of their kin. Sherwood had affixed his badge to the jacket he wore to the Summit. Speaking with the aid of a sign language interpreter, Amy Parsons, a deaf Black woman who also has blood ties to a No. 2 Battalion member, later walked to the front of the room and detailed her dismay with the planners of the Truro event.
As Parsons told it, she’d repeatedly beseeched organizers to secure sign language interpreters for the historic gathering. In the absence of a reply, she didn’t attend.
A pained silence fell over the room as Parsons returned to her seat. Visibly moved, Sherwood apologized to Parsons for the (mis) treatment she’d received. He then unpinned his badge from his jacket and presented it to her. Tears flowed.
Afterwards, a self-described elder stood and shared her feelings about the exchange. “If I don’t take anything else from this conference, I’m grateful for the honesty and kindness we all just witnessed,” she said. “That’s exactly the kind of modelling the Black community needs. We are one.”
In addition to delivering a rousing sermon during the interdenominational church service on the last day of the Summit, the Reverend Dr. Lennett Anderson also participated in a roundtable on Human Rights. I arrived at the session just as an attendee posed this question to the panelists: “How do Black people begin to heal?”
The senior pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Upper Hammonds Plains, Anderson immediately responded: “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” For me, his remark called to mind Toni Morrison’s essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” and its masterful riffs on “ghosts in the machine.”
Anderson then implored the audience to ponder the impact of intraracial violence. “There are folks walking around free who shouldn’t be free,” Anderson declared. “We need to break the silence.”
With that, I reflected on Lee’Marion (Mar Mar) Cain, the eight-year old boy from North Preston who was shot and killed last December, while in a vehicle with an adult. The reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the death of the child was last week increased to an unprecedented $250,000.
“The homicide remains under investigation,” Constable John MacLeod, Halifax Regional Police Public Information Officer told me, via e-mail. “We continue to urge the public to come forward.”
Giving voice to the multi-dimensional lives of Black Canadians from coast to coast to coast —“There are Black people in the Arctic,” an attendee noted — the final day of the Summit also featured performances by opera star Measha Brueggergosman-Lee (in a gospel groove) and the Nova Scotia Mass Choir.
Then came the Halifax Declaration. Crafted with community input, the document outlines a national plan of action that includes addressing the history of enslavement in Canada and the eradication of anti-Black racism throughout society. However, in contrast to the routine “Whereas” recitation of such edicts, the Declaration was performed by an ensemble of poets, activists, politicians, musicians, a dancer, and the former Governor General Michaëlle Jean, herself.
The riveting 18-minute bilingual presentation was the brain child of longtime African Nova Scotian leader Wayn Hamilton. “I asked a few individuals who I thought had the right approach, temperament, and artistic range to do well mixing improv with some structure,” said Hamilton whose steady beat on an African drum “cradled” the performance.
About Madame Jean’s contribution, he added: “She has a deep appreciation of artistic expression. She was asked and gracefully accepted.”
The talented local dancer/choreographer Liliona Quarmyne also joined the ensemble. “We knew that … response to the moment would need to be at the heart of what we were building,” she said. “Our task was to listen deeply and fully to the readers, to each other and to the audience.”
To be sure, Suzy Hansen, NDP MLA for Halifax Needham, wowed attendees with her spirited samplings of “O Canada,” “The Negro National Anthem,” and “Glory” by John Legend and Common. Folks hollered when she busted loose with the hook from Beyonce’s recent smash hit. “You won’t break my soul,” she wailed. “You won’t break my soul.”
At the close of the Summit, a triumphant Michaëlle Jean attributed its success to the “inclusive, bottom-up approach,” with which the event was planned (against the backdrop of a global pandemic). Citing Nova Scotia as the “place where the Black presence in Canada begins,” she said the Declaration “had to be delivered in Halifax.”
“The whole world will soon know what has been accomplished here,” she continued, noting the high-level officials from the United Nations who attended the conference.
A woman who took her child to the Summit lauded it as transformative. “It was very emotional for me,” said Osas Eweka-Smith, publicist and public relations officer for the National Film Board of Canada. “I brought my son on Sunday to be a part of the Declaration and to also see so many people who look like him gather in one place for a movement that will change his life. He is only four years old, but I wanted him to be a part of the energy.”
In his anthology Black Food: Stories, Art & Recipes from Across the African Diaspora, editor Bryant Terry pays tribute to Bernard Mugabane (1930-2013). The famed anthropologist and anti-apartheid activist proclaimed that Black people, disrupted by the cruelties of slavery, have been driven to “rediscover their shrines from the wreckage of history.”
Hence the hallowed and ever-sustaining shrine of homemade pies.