Senator Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard speaks to Halifax regional council on Tuesday. Credit: Zane Woodford

Senator Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard is calling on Halifax regional councillors to take action to combat anti-Black racism in the municipality.

Bernard, an independent Canadian senator appointed in 2016, gave a roughly half-hour long presentation to council’s virtual meeting on Tuesday morning.

The presentation, titled “Unpacking Anti‐Black Racism in the HRM: Creating Sustainable Change for Our Community” detailed the historical seeds of current day systemic racism in Halifax — colonialism, slavery, and segregation — and went on to try to impart on councillors the deep negative effects of that racism.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to know that many of you don’t know much about the history because that history isn’t taught,” Bernard said.

“We need to understand how the legacies of that historical anti-Black racism live on today. They live on today through current policies and they live on today through current practices. They live on today in the examples of the systemic racism that we see and also the everyday-ness of the racist microaggressions that people have to live with, have to learn to cope with. It’s just so damaging.”

Highlighting Mayor Mike Savage’s statement a few weeks ago amid worldwide protests following the police murder of George Floyd, Bernard said the city has made the right statements but needs to prove itself by following through.

Bernard listed other commitments by the municipality — including the 2010 apology for Africville and the 2019 apology for street checks.

But even though street checks have ended, Bernard said racial profiling has not, and the city has yet to own that.

Another one of the examples she gave was the 2016 Employment Systems Review — an originally confidential 139-page report that exposed widespread anti-Black racism in a since-dissolved municipal department.

A report to council earlier this year revealed that staff had previously misled council about the progress in implementing the resulting recommendations — all of which only became public after city employees protested in front of city hall.

And that report is just one example of the racism faced by Black municipal employees in Halifax. There’s also the case of Randy Symonds, who faced racist taunts at work with Halifax Transit while his tormentor, Arthur Maddox, kept his job.

“How many human rights complaints need to be filed before we recognize the real trauma people have experienced in their everyday lives?” Bernard asked.

Bernard said the city should sign onto the United Nations’ International Decade for People of African Descent — something Mayor Mike Savage said he and chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé said didn’t know they could do.

Dubé said he’d bring a resolution to that effect to the next council meeting. He also said a committee he struck looking into anti-Black racism in the city is nearly finished working on a report including recommendations for the municipality.

Another specific action Bernard suggested to council was to improve pedestrian safety in East Preston, where kids regularly have to cross a busy highway.

There’s a video and accompanying campaign aimed at improving that infrastructure, called East Preston ‐ The 7.

YouTube video

Later on Tuesday, council voted in favour of a motion to submit a funding request for federal and provincial money to build an active transportation trail along Highway 7 in East Preston.

Bernard concluded her presentation with three main takeaways for councillors, questions for them to ask themselves:

  1. How will you use your privilege to lead change?
  2. How will you integrate [anti-Black racism] lens into your work?
  3. How will you help the Black Lives Matter movement become a Movement for Change?

You can read the slide deck from Bernard’s presentation below, and a video will be available here sometime on Wednesday.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. Let’s get this trail built and much more! This area has been neglected by powers that be for many years. The number 7 is a busy busy road and it is horrible to walk on and try to cross.

  2. Beyond the poignant and powerful message carried by Senator Bernard’s message to Council, this also illustrates just how a Member of the Senate can bring valued insight to a very public issue. This is what the Senate can and should be. Imagine the influence of an upper chamber populated by people like Senator Bernard?