The history lessons of Vanessa Fells
By Alec Bruce 3 December 2019 Share this story
To Vanessa Fells, the Nova Scotia government’s historic announcement in October to prohibit police from conducting random street checks of Black people in the province marked the end of one era and the start of a new, urgent one.
Specifically, says the Program Coordinator of the Dartmouth-based African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition (DPAD): “How can we work with the government to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again?”
Fells has seen her group emerge from virtual obscurity three years ago to become one of the most organized and influential exponents of social justice in the province. Her question isn’t idle. History keeps raising it.
“A lot of people in the community at large did not understand why African Nova Scotians were so upset about street checks,” the Yarmouth-raised university graduate in education and criminology reflects. “But understand the story of policing Black lives in this province: first enslavement, then segregation and sundown laws governing when and where Black people could gather. Indiscriminate street checks emerged from that context. That’s why we will be meeting with the department of justice to talk about what comes next.”
If Fells and her coalition colleagues (comprising 30 groups and 100 people) have their way, it will be a future where collaboration, not contention, drives the agenda. That was the initiative’s spirit when it formed in 2016, following a presentation it made in Halifax to the visiting United Nations Working Group for People of African Descent. Since then, DPAD’s steady research, policy work and considered approach to advocacy have won support in some political circles of the province.
Although Fells emphasizes that the coalition is one chorus of voices among many (not least of whom is former Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Michael MacDonald, whose legal decision against street checks prompted the government ban) it’s been instrumental to Susan Leblanc, NDP MLA for Dartmouth North.
“Vanessa and her work, and the work of the DPAD Coalition, is vital in helping us take action,” says the NDP’s Spokesperson for African Nova Scotian Affairs, whose private member Bill 205 for a new African Nova Scotian Justice Institute had its first reading on October 17. “These are issues that have affected the African Nova Scotian community for decades.”
Fells wholeheartedly agrees. The first step towards making real, durable change, she says, is understanding history.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.
Alec Bruce is an award-winning journalist whose bylines regularly appear in major Canadian and American publications. He is completing a Master of Fine Arts (2022) in creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
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