By Solidarity Halifax members Sébastien Labelle & Ben Sichel.
For months, the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children has been front and centre in the news. The suffering of former residents, the hesitancy of the provincial government to call an inquiry, the failure to lay criminal charges, and some tentative reflection on racism as a variable on the impact on the African Nova Scotian community have all entered the discourse.
This discourse has definitely needed to happen. But frankly, it’s not enough.
It’s time to ask what is not being discussed, and what we, the broader citizenry of Nova Scotia, need to do to be genuinely accountable for what has been done to vulnerable people in our name.
The issues of physical, emotional and sexual abuse from the 50’s up until the 80’s include the vast context of our collective history and views on power – power over many people marginalized by race, gender, nation and class.
Here, we need to recall not just the abuses at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, but also the treatment of residents at the Shelburne School for Boys, the Truro School for Girls, and the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School; the sexual abuse of children by priests in Catholic parishes and orphanages; and the horrendous trail of sexual power exercised by Cesar Lalo, a provincial probation officer for 20 years in Halifax.
These events and examples are not isolated, but part of a complex web of power dynamics which allowed silence, and passive (when not active) compliance with abuse.
It is easy for the larger “we” to condemn the abuses from on high, without examining this web, and the social, political, and cultural exercise of power during those years.
But it must be remembered that all these institutions operated in the public’s name.
We can, and should, name individual perpetrators of abuse. But it is too simple and too glib not to look at who was in charge.
The collaboration with wrongdoing has a collective dimension. Those who were in charge of our institutions (who were then, and to a great degree remain today, white, male, and privileged) were the same people we made heroes and lionized in our history books. The men in the news who were in charge of our child welfare and judicial institutions were the same ones who abused public trust when dealing with violence against women and children – and our correctional facilities were (and are still now) certainly not full of young people from the wealthiest Nova Scotian families!
The Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr. Conviction exposed publicly what most African Nova Scotian and Mi’Kmaq people in Nova Scotia already knew, that the criminal justice system was embedded with racism. Maybe what’s now needed is a royal commission to investigate the embedded and structural racism, and the class and gender exercise of power which have guided not just the “hard” services such as police and criminal justice, but the “soft” social service institutions – quietly and secretly – for decades.
Originally published as a letter to the editor in the May 23 issue of The Coast.
Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.