Assigned to Nova Scotia five years ago as RBC’s regional president for the Atlantic Provinces proved to be more than a promotion for Kim Mason. It was a learning experience for the banking executive who left that posting in May 2014 with a greater appreciation and understanding of Nova Scotia’s rich Black history.
On her daily work commute between Bedford and Halifax, Mason passed Africville which – for more than 150 years – was home to a strong and proud community of Black Nova Scotians.
“I can still picture the sign that I would see on my way to and from work,” she said at the RBC Black History Month Student Essay competition celebration last week. “When I first arrived (in November 2010), sadly, I didn’t know what Africville was. What I realized after was that Africville is a constant reminder of Canada’s Black heritage – the challenges that we have overcome and those that we continue to strive to overcome.”
In the 1960s, Halifax’s city government acquired the land and in the process displaced close to 80 Black families and 400 individuals from Canada’s largest and oldest Black community. Parts of the land were used for an off-leash dog park and construction of the approaches to the A. Murray Mackay Bridge.
In 2002, the Canadian government declared Africville a heritage site.
Mason told the audience, which included Mayor John Tory and Senator Don Meredith, that she was particularly touched by Viola Desmond’s story.
In 1946, Desmond – a Halifax beauty shop owner – refused to sit in a New Glasgow theatre balcony section designated for Blacks. Instead, she sat on the ground floor reserved for White patrons. She had gone to the Roseland theatre to pass time while her car was being repaired.
After being forcibly removed from the theatre and arrested, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket and fined $20 and $6 in theatre court costs.
When efforts to overturn the conviction at higher levels of court failed, Desmond closed the business, moved to Montreal and enrolled in a business college. She eventually settled in New York, where she died in 1965 at age 51.
Six years ago, the Nova Scotia government officially apologized and pardoned Desmond.
RBC paid for Desmond’s sister – Wanda Robson and her husband, Joe, who live in Cape Breton – to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg last year. Robson, 87, contributed newspaper clippings and other memories to the museum.
Mason said she was delighted to play a part in facilitating Robson’s visit to the museum.
“Black Canadians are a rich part of our national heritage,” she said. “As Canadians, we benefit when we gain a truer appreciation and understanding of all of the threads that make up our national fabric. Black History Month is an opportunity for all of us and maybe especially for young Black Canadians to feel proud and inspired. I believe we have an obligation to continue to tell those stories and to honour them as we move forward.
“In many ways, the history of Black Canadians is an integral part of the broader Canadian story. So much of the Canadian identity is wrapped up in the notion of a diverse, multicultural and equitable society and much is owed to Black Canadians from all corners of our community who stood and stand for the kind of society we want by their actions and their examples.”
As part of Black History Month celebrations, RBC invited Grade 12 students to write an essay focusing on how Black Canadians helped to define Canada’s diverse heritage and identity through their achievements and contributions to the broader society.
The competition was expanded this year from students in the Greater Toronto Area to include teenagers from across Canada, and the scholarships were increased from three to 20.
Close to 200 students applied for the scholarships worth $17,500.
“Recognizing the contributions of Black Canadians is very important and all the students did so with great skill and passion,” said Dr. Catherine Chandler-Crichlow, who was one of the essay judges. “Every applicant should be proud of the work they have done.”
Waterloo Collegiate Institute student, Emma Cohen, won the top $5,000 prize. Preston Simmons of Auburn Drive High School in East Preston, Nova Scotia and Emmett Bisbee of Barrie Central Collegiate were rewarded with scholarships for $2,500 and $1,500, respectively. The other winners were presented with $500 scholarships.
Former Barbados consul general, Kay McConney, moderated the lively discussion.