Canada's Black Community Targets Local Discrimination

MANY white Canadians regard discrimination against blacks as primarily an American evil. But a growing wave of black protest over racism is challenging that assumption. Last month that resentment exploded in a brawl between white and black youths at Cole Harbour District High School near here. A snowball fight escalated into a battle that resulted in brief hospitalization of some students and charges being laid against 10 blacks and four whites. The school was closed for a day.

Heightened racial awareness is not unique to Nova Scotia. Across Canada, blacks are becoming more demonstrative in protesting what they see as racism and injustice.

More than 2,000 people, both black and white, gathered in Toronto to mark ``Martinsday,'' the unofficial holiday recognized by Canada's black community to coincide with the United States event honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

In Nova Scotia, blacks celebrated King's birthday with a week of events. Some 30,000 blacks live in this province today. Most are descendants of slaves. Subject to some illegal discrimination and inadequate education, Nova Scotia blacks remain the province's poorest people. More than 75 percent of blacks are jobless, living off welfare.

``We are very poor,'' says Henry Bishop, curator of the Black Cultural Center near here. ``Things are getting better. Youths are getting better educated. But because of racism, there has been a lot of dissatisfaction.''

To the Rev. Donald Skeir, a Baptist pastor in the black community of East Preston, the major cause of black unemployment is lack of education. ``I don't think it is a racial problem,'' he says. ``The unemployment is mainly due to ill education. The opportunity is there all the time ... when they are prepared. I'm tired of people saying things have to be handed to us.''

Individual blacks can easily cite examples of discrimination and racism. But both federal and provincial laws make such practices illegal. Moreover, the federal government finances special programs to find jobs for blacks.

``The employers are very receptive if we have a qualified person,'' says Mary Smith, an employment counselor with Watershed Association Development Enterprises, one such manpower program.

Many older blacks in this area have an education level of grade four or five. Black youths today tend to drop out around grade nine. ``The only problem is that a lot of employers are asking for two or three years of high school,'' says Ms. Smith.

The Baptist church - and most Nova Scotia blacks are adherents of this church - has been trying to encourage black youths to stay in school longer. At the annual convention of the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia last August, George Gray, chairperson of the education committee, advised black students: ``Have a dream to overcome obstacles and setbacks in life. If you believe in yourself, you'll educate yourself.''

But he reported only 48 black youths graduating from Nova Scotia high schools last year, a number indicating the extremely high drop-out rate. Nine graduated from business colleges, 16 from university, and 24 from vocational or technical schools.

Pastor Joseph Mack from Halifax credits the US civil rights movement with opening the eyes of Nova Scotia blacks ``to some of our social needs.''

Nova Scotia was the last province to eliminate segregated schools. Its 40 black communities often have been the last to receive municipal services, such as municipal water and paved roads.

``There is a lot of need for self-help,'' adds Pastor Mack. ``We have to try to lift ourselves up.''

But some other black leaders are more militant. Burnley Jones, leader of a relatively new group called the Black United Front, says: ``The history of blacks in Nova Scotia has been one of oppression.''

Some 24 black parents at the Coal Harbour high school have formed a special parents-students association to combat racism, monitor the treatment of black students, and encourage schools to teach more history of blacks and other ethnic groups in Nova Scotia.

Evangeline Cain-Smith, president of the association, says students even in schools where blacks are common are not taught the heritage of blacks. She complains teachers too often stream black students into vocational schools rather than academic schools.

``People have to understand and admit that racism is a major problem in Nova Scotia,'' she says.

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