Justine Colley-Leger’s path seemed to be mapped out for her. She left Saint Mary’s University as the leading points scorer in Canadian university women’s basketball history. She was already an established national team member. Fans imagined her starring at the Olympics, playing for the WNBA or pursuing a career in Europe, years and years of more basketball accolades.
But she had a different plan for herself.
Graduating with a degree in finance in 2014, Colley-Leger chose to walk away from playing basketball to focus on her family and community. And now Colley-Leger is increasingly finding her voice as a community advocate.
Throughout her basketball career, Colley-Leger never forgot going door to door in her community of East Preston to fundraise to travel to tournaments. As a player, she was acutely aware of the pride African Nova Scotians took in her, and of her responsibility to represent her community positively.
And now after her playing career, working as the African Nova Scotia Sexual Violence Community Engagement Coordinator and serving as the treasurer for the East Preston Ratepayers Association, that same sense of service to community motivates her as she organizes the younger generation in the Prestons to fight for justice.
I met Justine Colley-Leger outside the Black Cultural Centre on Thursday during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Cherrybrook. Standing in the freezing cold and the snow, she made a powerful speech asserting the rights and presence of African Nova Scotians in the Prestons. I spoke to Colley-Leger about why she made the choice to stop playing basketball, how she has emerged as a strong political voice in her community, and her hopes for the future of her community.
I want to go back to your basketball career. Can you give me some of those highlights? You were the most successful player in women’s university basketball history.
Yes, I currently hold the record for most points scored in — well, at the time it was called Canadian Inter-University Sports, I think it’s called U Sports now — and that was over a five-year career. Every division or every conference has their own set amount of games and they keep their own statistics, because different teams play a different amount of games. But overall, I’ve scored the most points of anyone, and I did that in, like, the second-last game of the season. So it happened quite quickly. I wasn’t chasing it.
I’ve always been known to score. But, I think as you mature and grow not just on the basketball court but also mentally, you start to see things a little bit differently. I guess that’s how I got to where I am now, which we’ll get to. But the game just seemed a lot easier to me as I got to my fifth year. And maybe it was because the pressure to do something after wasn’t there any more.
I know really early in the second term of my final season, it became more like a job rather than something I wanted to do. And so once it was no longer my priority, or it wasn’t the top on my list in terms of priority, it made me start to realize that maybe that’s not the life I want to live for the next 10 years if I choose to go play professionally.
So what made you decide to leave? Because I imagine a lot of people had your life mapped out for you; what made you realize it wasn’t something you wanted to do?
When I was in high school, or maybe it was my first or second year of university when I was playing with the senior women’s national team, we were talking about how at the 2008 Olympics, the Canadian women’s basketball team was the youngest team there, and the average age was I think about 24 or 25. What we would consider here in Canada to be relatively older to do sport, but everywhere else around the world, women are playing into their 30s, and some might get to 40.
And for me, as a woman, knowing that I might want to have a family of my own, it started to become like an ultimatum. I can choose to pursue this dream, or I choose to follow my other dream of being a mother and having a family and living that life as well. And for me, I didn’t see it working that I could do both. I know a lot of people do, I just didn’t want to do either one of them half way.
I wanted to be fully committed, whether that was pursuing the dream and then going to Europe and then the WNBA, and Team Canada, and the Olympics, all those fun things. I felt like it was doing that at my 100 per cent all, or being a mother and doing that at my 100 per cent, where I didn’t have to worry so much about all those other things.
And then I fell in love. As cheesy and as corny as that sounds, my husband and I started dating in my second-last year and by January of my final season, I knew that I’d rather start a family with him than go to Europe and be distant from my family and friends, and my community.
Was it a struggle? Because people project all kinds of expectations on other people, especially in the Black community, where there’s this idea that we carry the torch for everybody. So, it seems to me it must have taken a certain amount of courage to step away.
I guess I would say that I’m the type of individual where I don’t really care what people think. I mean, obviously people’s words affect me like everyone else. I am human. but I never allowed people to feel as if they had power over my future.
And by doing that I knew that, whatever I choose I live with it regardless of it’s good or bad, and I’ll take it as it comes. And that has always been my mentality. Whenever people would address it or talk about it, I would just say, it’s what I want to do, and as long as you’re confident in your decisions, no one can really say anything to you.
Were you always political? Or was that something that developed once you left sports?
I would say that during my career I was always politically correct. I knew the image that came from my community in the media’s eye and in the world’s eye, and I did not want to fall within a certain stereotype of being what everyone believes Black people are. And so I would say I was always very cautious with what I would say in the media not to offend anyone.
But the political stuff didn’t really hit home until there were issues in East Preston, because I live here now. My husband and I built a house here, and there were things that were happening around me that weren’t going to benefit us, and I couldn’t just stand around and let them happen.
What were those things?
In East Preston, we are the first community to not have city water. So in North Preston, has city water. Salmon River, Ross Road, they have city water. But we do not have city water. And there’s lots of questions about why our water is no longer drinkable, even though it has been drinkable for the last hundreds of years that we’ve lived out here. And so there was a conversation being had at the recreational centre by the previous ratepayers about having city water come in.
So they informed the community and they informed us how much it would cost.
And when was this happening?
Oh, this happened a year ago. October, November of 2017. So there were conversations around the water coming in here, and it gave us the impression based on how it was presented to the community that this was already in the works even though the bill was going to fall on the community.
And so I was quite upset that people had the audacity to make these decisions about what would happen to me and my bottom line without my say.
I’m not the most educated person in the world but I don’t consider myself foolish. And the best way to have a safe future for me and my family — because that’s why I’m doing all of this — is to make sure that I’m involved in the conversation as much as possible.
Now what that looks like going forward? My husband and I were just talking about this last night. I don’t know what that is as of yet. I’m still trying to figure out where this path goes. I just know that I see a lot of things that I don’t like and should be addressed.
So you joined the East Preston Ratepayers Association.
I grew up here and since I’ve been born, almost 30 years ago now, I think we’ve had five new houses in the entire community, maybe 10, with myself being one of them. And so lots of work is being done trying to get recognition for the Preston area but we need to find a way to keep the area alive. It’s an older population out here. How can we plan for the future when those planning that future won’t be here to live it?
So I had to get involved. I couldn’t stand on the sidelines anymore, so with my finance background the community voted me in as the Treasurer.
At the demonstration you were speaking about unifying the Prestons.
We are trying to get the three communities of Preston to work together because as of right now, and I would really say historically speaking, we’ve always been divided. That’s just how the system has been designed for us to fight against each other rather than work with each other because we have strength in numbers.
And so that’s what we’re trying to do with the younger generation. And I wouldn’t even say like the more educated generation, but I would maybe say the more awoken generation is ready to see change.
We understand that we deserve everything that everyone else around us has. The Acadians are doing an amazing job but they’re working together. That’s why their voices are being heard. They just built a new school out in the Eastern Passage because those people got together and said this is what we want.
So the only way for us to get ahead or to even catch up is for us to work together as the three Black communities that still remain. Because a lot of the Black communities across the province are much older. Or gentrification has come in and they don’t exist anymore.
You also work with the Sexual Violence Strategy.
I’m the African Nova Scotia community engagement coordinator. What that means is just trying to get communities talking about sexual violence. That could be from a prevention aspect, or from community events, or talking with staff, talking with service providers.
What I’m doing is to hopefully start the conversation within our communities because, as you know, that code of silence is so deeply ingrained into our people that we’re hurting ourselves because we don’t know how to deal with that trauma. And I think by starting the conversation we can get closer to actually seeking help.
And that’s what I’m working on right now, just getting that conversation started amongst ourselves. And then those people that need help can seek help, and those people that are seeing bad things happen can hold others accountable.
In the U.S. we’re seeing a lot of athletes, particularly Kaepernick, becoming very political. Is that something you identify with?
I absolutely love everything that he’s been doing down there. I honestly think that something like that needs to happen here as well because they’re making a huge impact to the African-Americans that are standing with him — or, kneeling with him — and it just shows you that strength in numbers. I think it’s coming. It’s my generation and probably younger that are going to be the ones that make that change.
I want to go back to basketball for a minute. Because obviously in this province for Black people, basketball is the glue of the community. Has basketball been a political space for African Nova Scotians?
I think it can be.
You talked a bit yesterday about that. About how you can use basketball to get an education, but there’s also that other side of the pressure, and the ways in which your body is within a system. So I’m wondering how we negotiate that as Black people where there’s a power in sports, but also the exploitation of Black bodies that exists in sports.
I think we have to educate our youth more for them to see their talents and then teach them how to use them to their advantage. When I speak to youth, that’s what I tell them to do. And I tell them, you’re still a person behind that talent. You still have to make you happy regardless of what your gifts are. You can use your gifts to make your life happy, or you can use your gifts to make your life miserable.
And I personally think that if I used my gift to continue after university once I got my degree, it wouldn’t have taken me to a happy place. I think I would be quite miserable, to be honest. I think we also just need to let our youth and our athletes know that it’s okay to turn down those opportunities as well.
There’s a sense, maybe this is from a historical mindset, of once someone gives you something you have to take it because you might not get it again. I want our youth to know that they don’t have to be desperate for that opportunity.
Now, I say that and I also realize that we have an education system that is failing them. So, take it with a grain of salt, I guess, because we know our education system isn’t teaching our Black youth. The school to prison pipeline isn’t hidden anymore.
That’s why I promote using your talents and whether it’s ball, whether it’s painting, whether it’s singing or whatever it is, if that’s going to help you get to the next point in your life that you can be successful — whatever success looks like for you — then I strongly encourage youth to do that.
Where do you think your sense of community responsibility comes from?
I think my parents insisted on a lot of great values in me in terms of selflessness. My parents were phenomenal. They just always made sure that I stayed humble because they understood what privilege was. They didn’t have to tell me that I was privileged, but they made sure that I was aware that I had opportunities that other people didn’t have and that I shouldn’t take those for granted.
And so when I would walk around the neighborhood knocking on doors asking them to donate money so that I could go play basketball, I felt like I wasn’t there by myself. I didn’t do it on my own. My whole community literally supported me to get to some tournament and get to places where I could be seen at a larger scale. So it really wasn’t just me.
My sense of community comes because my community always supported me, so now it’s time for me to support my community with the platform that they allowed me to have that they helped me get.
What does being a Black women mean to you in this age?
I see endless opportunities. I feel powerful. Because I am a Black woman, and the world is finally starting to realize that we have a lot of power and strength within us.
Based on the platform that I have, or have had in the past, I know that there is a lot of power behind my name and I need to make sure that I use that in the best way to help my people so that we can all get to this feeling of satisfaction and meaning to find that purpose in life.
And, this being our decade I feel like the sky’s the limit which is maybe another cliché thing to say, but I really do feel Black women or Black people at this point in time can really make a big change in the world if we work together to do it.
This interview was edited for length.
El Jones holds the Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University.
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Thank you for this. Ms Colley’s basketball career at SMU was amazing to follow and I knew she opted out of the WNBA/Europe option that might’ve been expected of her… but I hadn’t heard what her next move(s) were. I’m really happy to read that wants to be a difference-maker here in NS. I’ve no doubt she can be a force to be reckoned with off the court as well.