Around the world, democratic societies struggle with how to ensure minority groups a seat at the table where policy is made.
Here in Nova Scotia, they're doing it by - quite literally - pulling up another chair.
Saturday is election day here, and for the first time, each of the the province's eight regional school boards will have an additional seat designated for a black member.
It's a first among the Canadian provinces. African Nova Scotians, as they are known, are largely descended from slaves freed by King George III if they would fight against their rebellious masters during the American Revolution. Their deep historical roots in Canada and their self-awareness arguably give them a certain leadership role among Canada's black communities.
But you can't take self-awareness to the bank, or put it on the table. From the beginning, African Nova Scotians, about 3 percent of the population, have had a tough slog, enduring joblessness and lack of educational opportunity. "Many of them did not get their 40 acres and a mule," says Delvina Bernard, a black educator, referring to the grants promised to the freed slaves by the Crown.
The designated seats - established this past spring by provincial legislation brought in by Premier John Hamm's Conservative government - are raising no particular constitutional questions. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly protects affirmative action to correct historic inequalities. And the idea that something needs to be done to empower the black community is not attracting serious opposition.
But some sparks have flown over how it is being done. Only blacks and the parents of black children are entitled to vote for the designated seats. And such voters must decide whether to choose a candidate for the designated seat or the regular district seat.
"I take people at their word when they say it's the process they're not happy with," rather than a racial set-aside itself, says Douglas Sparks, a community-development activist and father of three daughters. He is one of three candidates for the designated African Nova Scotian seat in Halifax. His family roots in the community of East Preston go back to 1816 - when a second wave of blacks came into Nova Scotia from the United States after the War of 1812.
But it's more recent history he's focused on. "We've had in the 20th century situations where there were no schools. There are still problems with literacy and numeracy in our communities."
He notes that the process for electing the designated African Nova Scotians is like that for the special school board serving the province's Acadians, French-speaking whites, whose school-age population of 4,000 is about the same size as that of the black community.
Others aren't so sure that the situation of the Acadians is analogous. "We don't have separate schools," says Clotilda Yakimchuk of Sydney, Nova Scotia, a retired nurse who was the first black president of the nurses association for the province. "I'm very happy about what I perceive to be the intent of the legislation," she continues, "but does it say that we cannot compete equally?"
"The designated seat is only one of many items needed to give blacks a full voice," says Ms. Bernard, director of the Council of African Canadian Education, a provincially funded advisory board.
In 1994, a task force studying the concerns of black children in the Nova Scotia schools released a landmark report known as the Black Learners' Advisory Council report. "A recurrent theme throughout the report was the lack of voice in decisionmaking," says Mike Sweeney, director of regional educational services for the provincial ministry of education. "I don't see anything but benefit" coming from the set-aside school-board seats.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society