Brighter days ahead
From left: Vicky Levack, Achala Hewaarachchi, and Alexander MacLeod are among the people who helped reshape Halifax in 2022. Photos: Bruce Murray
Halifax’s rapid transformation continued in 2022 — meet the unheralded heroes reshaping our city
Pushing for accessibility rights. Funding affordable housing. Reckoning with racism. Protecting our environment. Tackling immigrant barriers. Listening to diverse voices.
Change that’s long overdue is sweeping through K’jipuktuk (the original Mi’kmaw name for the Halifax area).
The transformation isn’t coming on its own. Unravel Halifax recently talked with four Haligonians who are helping to reshape the city.
HOW THE SYSTEM IS SUPPOSED TO WORK
Vicky Levack, who has severe cerebral palsy, thought she was falling through the cracks when she was stuck in a nursing home 10 years ago at the age of 21.
“I got myself settled and then realized, ‘This is how the system is designed to work,’” she recalls. “It wasn’t an ‘Oops.’ It’s working as intended, which is just to throw people with disabilities in a home and say, ‘There you go,’ without actually consulting them about where they wish to go and what they wish to do.”
Levack, a disability and affordable housing rights activist, knew it was morally wrong to stick people with disabilities in nursing homes and psychiatric wards. But she didn’t realize it was also legally wrong — not until her father learned about a Nova Scotia court case that found evidence the province was systemically discriminating against three people with mental and physical disabilities by housing them at a Halifax-area psychiatric hospital.
She contacted a lawyer involved in the suit.
“He called me and said, ‘You want to get out?’ I said, ‘Is that an option?’ He said, ‘Yeah, they’re going against your human rights. They’re breaking human rights law.’ I said, ‘Hell yeah, you’ve got yourself a case. Please get me the hell out because I’m miserable.’”
Levack’s move from Arborstone Enhanced Care on Purcells Cove Road to a newly renovated apartment with a roommate was on hold for more than a year, largely because of COVID-19. “They still have to hire caregivers,” says Levack. “I don’t know how long that will take.” Editor’s note: Shortly after the print edition of this story published, Levack got word she’s scheduled to move into an apartment in mid-November, making her one of the first four people in a provincial pilot program.
The 31-year-old has no intention of slowing down once she settles into her new home.
“People say, ‘Yay, you’ve got your own apartment. You can retire.’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t,’” she says. “I’m going to focus on getting everyone out behind me. There are around 300 people in nursing homes now in Nova Scotia in the same boat as I’m in and almost a thousand others, if not more … in psychiatric wards and other institutions. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Her predicament has also made her think more broadly about housing as a basic human right. During the pandemic, she was a vocal spokesperson for the homeless at Meagher Park, a small West End triangle of land dubbed “People’s Park,” which became home to about a dozen people in tents before the city shut down the encampment.
“They say we have to build affordable housing, but we already have all these empty buildings that could be turned into affordable housing quickly, such as the old library downtown,” says Levack. “The problem is not going to be solved by giving giant tax breaks to developers.”
PICKING UP MOMENTUM
Raven Davis — an Anishinaabe, two-spirit, transgender, disabled multidisciplinary artist, activist, and educator — is a leading voice for change.
After moving to Nova Scotia about 10 years ago, Davis got on the Harbour Hopper sightseeing tour, and heard a spiel on Halifax’s history from the tour guide. “I told them, ‘You’re missing quite a bit of information,’” recalls the Toronto native, who uses the pronouns they/them.
They found the experience not all that different when they visited the Nova Scotia Archives and started reading through some of the major events in the province’s history.
“One of them was, of course, Cornwallis,” Davis says, referring to British military leader Edward Cornwallis who Halifax feted as its founder for more than 200 years.
It took 25 years of protests over his racism (which included offering bounties for the scalps of murdered Mi’kmaw) before officials removed his name from a park, street, and junior-high school. His statue now sits in a municipal warehouse.
“We still have a lot of work to do to reclaim histories that haven’t even been talked about,” says Davis, whose work focuses on themes of gender, disability, and transformative justice and colonization.
Davis notes that back in 1995, when hundreds of thousands of African American men gathered in Washington, D.C. for the Million-Man March political demonstration to improve conditions for Blacks, “everybody knew what it was about.
“There’s an element of not knowing, of ‘Oh, we don’t know about the residential schools,’ or, ‘We didn’t know about slavery in Canada,’” they add. “But there is an awareness on a historical level that these issues have been going on for over 500 years.”
What is different now is that more people are speaking out against the entrenched inequities within government systems and communities, Davis says. “There are more voices standing up and saying, ‘No, this is unacceptable.’ That naturally comes with the evolution of humanity.”
It’s also a function of more people feeling the effects of injustices and inequities in major government systems, including policing, health care, and mental health, they add. “The mass shooting in Portapique is a good example. People are now questioning the RCMP and they’re not just Black and Indigenous people anymore. They’re seeing complete failures in accountability.”
The ancestors of Indigenous, African Nova Scotians, and other marginalized groups “have been doing this work for hundreds of years,” they say.
Davis has carried on the tradition by speaking out vocally and publicly in the media, online, in artists talks, in keynotes, in workshops, and within their art practice.
“I’m just part of many people who’ve contributed to this greater conversation that has fueled so much incredible artwork, so much manifestation of our futures, and what we want to see, what we want to reclaim, how we want to tell our stories, and how we want to be represented,” they say. “Has there been progress? Yes. That’s usually when people start to slow down. But that’s the time where we actually have to pick up momentum.”
BLAZING THE TRAIL
Achala Hewaarachchi knows first-hand how unsettling it can be to land in Nova Scotia as an immigrant, and draws on her own experience as a Sri Lankan refugee to help ease the path for newcomers.
Now working as a settlement support contact for school-aged kids with the YMCA in Dartmouth, she arrived as a student at St. Francis Xavier University in the late 1980s at age 21. She stayed as a refugee when she was unable to return home due to the outbreak of civil war.
“When I first came to Canada, there was not a whole lot of support,” she says. “Even if you have a bit of English, the culture is totally different. There are so many things you don’t think of that you need to learn to live here.”
She remembers feeling that people viewed her differently from other Canadian women. She felt overlooked and underestimated, despite her roots in Sri Lanka as a young community leader.
The dearth of support Hewaarachchi found drew her to her position as a settlement worker with the YMCA’s centre for immigrant services.
“We work with the students in elementary, junior high, and high school to help connect them with community resources,” she says. “It can take at least three years for someone to really adjust to the Canadian system and learn the language. We give them time to ask questions and be comfortable and enrol them in after-school activities.”
Having the extra support means a lot for newcomer parents, who are often on their own without extended family to support them. “We make sure the children feel happy and safe. If the children are happy, the parents will be happy. If the parents are happy, they stay here longer.”
Last year, the immigrant school support program worked with close to 3,000 students in the Halifax area, with 18 staff serving 37 schools. The staff has since expanded to 22 with demand increasing along with a wave of new immigrants.
Hewaarachchi joined the program in 1998 and worked in Fairview for 18 years. The area, along with Clayton Park and Halifax West, has been a long-time destination for newcomers. But the housing affordability crisis has meant many immigrants are having to find different neighbourhoods. With that shift, Hewaarachchi now works in Dartmouth.
No matter where immigrants come from, the needs are often similar: figuring out how to do things like apply for a social insurance number and learning English. During the COVID lockdowns, Hewaarachchi and her colleagues tried to ensure immigrant families had laptops or tablets so children could learn at home.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of the work is offering empathy.
“This summer, I got a phone call from a student I had in 1999,” she says. “He tracked me down and said he got married, had a daughter, and wanted to connect just to say, ‘You helped me so much and I’ll never forget.’ These kids are becoming nurses, doctors, and active participants in this society and do well. You look back and they were struggling when they came. I love it. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and pride.”
‘THE BEST IS YET TO COME’
Award-winning writer and Saint Mary’s University professor Alexander MacLeod works with a young and ever-diverse crop of writers to help them find their voices.
In one of his literature classes, he sometimes teaches his students Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising, a 1941 novel about the catastrophic 1917 Halifax explosion that some credit as the start of Canadian literature.
“They don’t recognize that city,” the Dartmouth-based writer says. “They recognize the spaces that the characters are walking — Citadel Hill and the waterfront and all that — but the books that represent their Halifax are much more diverse, much more complicated. They understand that Halifax has a very complex, contradictory history and you have to be able to see all of that at once in order to represent it.”
These more complex stories are emerging. “At this moment, right now, Halifax’s literature is the most diverse it has ever been. It still has a lot of work to do,” he says. “The best is yet to come.”
As the son of acclaimed Cape Breton writer Alistair MacLeod, he’s used to being around literary talent, and counts himself lucky to work with many emerging writers.
“Some of them are young, in their early 20s, so they are finding their voice in creative-writing workshops,” he says. “It’s very exciting when you’re reading a new story for the first time. The rest of the world doesn’t know that this voice is there yet. But you’re seeing it and you’re like, ‘Woah, when this hits, it’s going to really matter.”
In his own creative work, MacLeod isn’t afraid to set his short stories explicitly in Halifax or Dartmouth and “then send them out into the world and see what happens.”
One of his short stories, “Once Removed,” ran in the New Yorker this year, and many other publishers have bought his work, translating it into many different languages.
“All of these people might not have been to Dartmouth or maybe even Nova Scotia, but they recognize, I hope, certain primal currents that everybody recognizes,” he says. “I try not to fake it. That’s what I tell my students. Try to be as honest with the forces that are important in your life. You can’t help but be shaped by the forces that are flowing through this place.”
When the writing isn’t honest, readers know.
“It kind of goes back to, whatever revolution you think is started with the Trailer Park Boys or with George Elliot Clark or with Rita Joe, (with each depicting) examples of people from very different ideas to the cliché of Atlantic Canada,” he says. “The Atlantic Canadian comedy, the African Nova Scotian and Indigenous voice are all very different in 2022 than they were in 1982. I just think there’s amazing work going on in every corner.”