The Changemakers

Rebecca Thomas (left) and Dr. Margaret Casey. Photo: Bruce Murray

To get the bright future it deserves, Halifax needs to take an honest look at itself —meet the people fighting for change

Halifax has a hubris problem.

We like to think of our city as hip, fun, dynamic. But we often fail to recognize its ugly underbelly — an unjust, unfair place for so many, for so long. 

“Its well-intention is also its big blind spot,” says Rebecca Thomas, a Mi’kmaw writer and former Halifax poet laureate. 

Thomas shared this frustration and more at a roundtable with four other local changemakers invited to Unravel’s North End offices to chart a better course for K’jipuktuk (the original Mi’kmaq name for Halifax, meaning “the Great Harbour”). Meet the participants.

While there might be lots to be excited about, unsolved problems drag on. A lack of respect for Indigenous peoples. Four hundred years (and counting) of anti-Black racism. Police brutality and racial profiling. Wages below the poverty line. Unaffordable housing. Unnecessary red tape for international students and immigrants. Inaccessible transport for residents with disabilities. Self-satisfied apathy that overlooks societal ills or dismisses them as inevitable. 

“When I was growing up, I thought Halifax was about the people,” says Kate Macdonald, an activist and artist of African Nova Scotian descent. “That’s why we got the reputation that we have — not because we have shiny buildings, but because of the way people are here, whatever the rep is.” 

Now, unless people themselves are affected, they don’t care, she says. 

“We’re not this poor port town that’s struggling. It’s not like that anymore. There’s lots of money here,” she says. “It’s about attracting new people for the economy. It’s about displacing people to make space for things that look nicer. It’s about forgetting people in prisons and jails and not really worrying about what our educational system is doing.” 

Dr. Margaret Casey, a retired physician who spent 25 years working at the North End Community Health Centre, says work is ongoing on important issues but it “needs to be escalated.” 

“We are not truly inclusive and we don’t have equity and diversity in the proper way in this city,” she says. 

Max Taylor, a TikTok star who came in a not-so-distant third in the 2020 race for Halifax mayor, is frustrated more people aren’t stepping up. 

“People my age, a bunch who are finishing school, have a lot of things to say on social media,” he says. “But they’re not sending the letters. They’re not talking to people about it. They’re not running themselves. They’re not going out to try and help people who are running to try and change things.” 

The apathy is why “nothing ever changes,” he says. “Just because it hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it can’t … If no one’s done it before, be the first. I don’t think enough people have that mindset.” 

Frances Dadin-Alli, a Nigerian who immigrated to Halifax in 2010 to study at Dalhousie University, says people need to sacrifice their time and take a stand.

“I climbed my way to the position I am now, as Pride chair, because I want change,” she says. “I’m always questioning rules and regulations … I want it to be inclusive for everybody.”

Tangled in red tape 
Dadin-Alli’s biggest frustration with Halifax is the lack of government support and unnecessary red tape for immigrants and international students.

“I don’t think the government has given immigrants a lot of opportunity to further themselves,” she says. “I’ve struggled a lot. There are so many criteria we need to catch up with as immigrants before we can have the privilege of every Canadian and permanent resident … It holds you back.”

International students pay double the university tuition fees and are restricted about the hours they can work to support themselves. To gain a post-graduation visa and apply for permanent residency, they are required to get work in their field of study, she says. “How many people can say they finished university and got the exact job they went to school for?”

In her case, it’s a bachelor of arts degree in gender and women studies with a certificate in disability management. Now that she’s gained permanent residency status after 11 years, she’s opening a restaurant.

Thomas, an Aboriginal student services supervisor at the Nova Scotia Community College, says the process for international students smacks of paternalism. “They’re charging you more and saying you’re not allowed to work,” she says. “When I was a full-time master’s student and had four jobs, no one said, ‘No, no, you can’t.’ It makes it harder for them to succeed.”

We all pay for unaffordable housing
Universities get big bucks from the province and one reason they charge higher fees is because international students often don’t stick around after graduation.

Taylor says staying is out of reach for many international students. 

“When I did my whole little political stint, I talked to people who were students who came here,” he says. “They said they’d like to stay, but that they can’t afford to stay. If you look at a lot of the apartments around the universities, they’re paying these high, high prices to live in these tiny one-bedrooms and it’s just going up and up and up.”

Casey says government seems to be making a genuine attempt to provide more affordable housing, what she calls “an urgent crisis here in the city.”

“I’m not just talking about the people who are homeless. That’s a huge problem,” she says. “But people who were not able to pay their rent and have been evicted.”

Casey was part of an unsuccessful court challenge to turn the shuttered St. Patrick’s-Alexandra Elementary School into a community hub with affordable housing.

The developer building on the site wants approval for two luxury towers, over 20 storeys each, to be able to pay for the few affordable housing units that would be there. “That has to be addressed,” says Casey.

One solution would be a community benefit agreement between developers and coalitions of community groups, says Macdonald. “However much money you make, a percentage of it has to go directly back to the community. We don’t have that here … We’re just stuck right now.”

Macdonald says the community cares, but she’s not sure about government. “We saw the community rally and make these shelters for folks and now the city is saying we’re taking them down because they’re ugly.”

Casey says safety, not aesthetics, is the concern with the temporary shelters at sites around the city. “Those structures are not the answer. There has to be a dignified way … that is safe and affordable.”

Be the change
Change is overdue.

“I think that the pandemic has made people — not everybody, I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna here — [spend] time reflecting on what are the really important things that we have to do,” says Casey. “Whether we’ll move from that reflection to actually doing, I’m not sure what the spur will be. But I am hopeful that people are seeing things with a slightly different lens, maybe not a totally different one. The question is: how do we make the move into action?” 

Paying a living wage, creating more affordable housing, improving accessibility, and easing the path for international students and immigrants are problems that could be fixed now, with the right push and political will.

But to become a city where all people are treated equitably, Halifax needs to abandon its old 19th-century ways. That means stop trying to fix the existing system and come up with a new, better one that supports rather than oppresses. 

The city can get there. But it will require disruption and discomfort.

“We could have a Mi’kmaw mayor in Halifax and I don’t think that would meaningfully change how Mi’kmaw people are treated,” says Thomas. 

It takes courage to give up the way we’ve always done things, but we’ve done it before.

“There was a God-selected monarch that had a feudal system,” says Thomas. “We thought that was the only way that we could operate in the world and we imagined something beyond that and it shifted and changed.”

As with the overhaul of the feudal system, it will require elites giving up power and wealth.

Thomas doesn’t see that happening willingly. “That’s where I kind of feel stuck,” she says. “So what do I do? I go home and I’m writing a romantic novel.”

“That stuff is important too,” says Macdonald. “There’s value in however we’re surviving these systems. We’re always told it’s a waste of time to daydream. Everyone’s wildest idea came from a dream at some point. It’s not useless for me to dream what this world would look like if you had the capacity to actually just let me live. That’s as basic as it gets.”

“Yeah,” says Thomas. “Without limitations.”

Macdonald adds, “We also need to disenchant ourselves from what Halifax is … There’s lots of money here. There’s lots of push for the economy and infrastructure. But for who? And for what, when, why … Those are conversations we need to have.”

Low bar
Striving for changes to make Halifax a better place isn’t some utopian ideal.

“Our bars are so low,” says Thomas. “When people talk about why they’re proud to be Canadian, they say it’s free speech and health care — unless it’s your teeth or eyes or your mental health: free health care with an asterisk. Those should be human rights.” 

Every small step gets us closer, says Macdonald. “Small change is still change. We just need to do the work.”

Deeds not words
With Canada’s wealth built on resources from lands taken from displaced and killed Indigenous people, First Nation land acknowledgements should generate the same respect as veterans get on Remembrance Day, Thomas says. “We see an Indigenous person who’s homeless because they’ve been displaced from their communities and their land and they’re spat on. It makes me so mad because the displacement of Indigenous people has done more for this country than any other veteran ever has.”

Thomas would be happy to never see another orange shirt or a flag lowered to half-mast to honour lost Indigenous children if the federal government would stop taking residential school survivors to court and provide Indigenous people with clean drinking water. 

“I’m done with symbolism,” she says.

A start would be to fire all white people who run things for First Nations, she adds. “We have never had an Indigenous minister of Indigenous Affairs in Canada,” she says. “Have Indigenous people run things for Indigenous people because it’s incredibly paternalistic to think that politicians and white people would be able to properly assess and decide what Indigenous people need for success.”

Black lives still matter
As with First Nations, Nova Scotia has systemically marginalized and discriminated against Black people for centuries. 

“When I first saw the hashtag Every Child Matters, I was like don’t you dare let this be [a token] hashtag BLM for this year,” says Macdonald. “Because I know what it’s like to be a year out and people don’t care.” 

People are “way more anti-Black than they know,” she adds. “People are obsessed with Black people, but 

they also hate Black people.” White people appropriate the culture, the hair, the music, she says. “They don’t realize I’m penalized for the same thing.” 

Dadin-Alli says people want to take the culture, but not to support Black people. The popularity of waist beads worn by African women to symbolize fertility and femininity is a prime example, she says. “Now on social media, it’s like a fashion where every woman wears them. I’m like, ‘Do you guys know what this means?’ It’s one thing to take people’s culture, but when they have an issue, you run away. You don’t stand with them.”

Too much to tackle?
With so many issues to tackle, changemakers, policymakers, and money are spread thin. Complacency is also a challenge.

“Is it Every Child Matters? Is it Black Lives Matter? Or is it accessibility? Or is it newcomer immigrant?” says Macdonald. “What are you fired up about? Take that on. People are always going to see me as the anti-police girl … Do I think the justice system is whack? Absolutely. I focus on what I know and I speak from what I understand. That’s where all my fire goes.”

There is symbolic change on some issues. But whether that will lead to meaningful change is not yet clear. 

“I don’t know if … symbolism is step one,” says Macdonald. “Or if there’s a step one we’re not taking because of symbolism.” 

People, even the oppressed, are continuing to step up and issues are resonating with Haligonians. 

“We have the capability to shift our kaleidoscope and change what the outcome is if we stop being so — greedy maybe? Complacent. Scared,” says Macdonald. “If you’re scared, just do it anyways. I’m scared every time I go out into the streets. There’s nothing to protect me and I do it anyways.”

Change, not absolution
White guilt is no help.

“If it’s a starting point to learn, that’s great. Then turn it into action,” says Thomas. “Acknowledge your privilege and utilize it. I don’t want to oppress white people so they know what it feels like. I want the same rights as white people.”

People shouldn’t turn to Indigenous and Black people to absolve guilt. 

“There’s a collective movement of people learning about lost kids, residential schools, about police violence toward the Black community,” says Thomas, whose father attended Shubenacadie Residential School. “When they have their moments of breakdowns and ah-ha moments and feel guilty … they turn to us for absolution. I’m not the place to put your tears about residential school. It’s great. I’m so proud of you for taking this on, but don’t come to me. There’s a lack of boundaries about where it’s appropriate to put tears.” 

A vision
Casey believes change starts with big ambitions.

“That sounds way pie-in-the-sky stuff. But if people could get a sense of what this city could be and everybody has a part to play — everybody. Gradually, we would learn the different perspectives and what needs to be done,” she says. “Nothing is going to happen overnight. But if we could talk about a vision for the city, that could be something that would be an energizer.” 

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