Black artists with N.S. roots want their Métis ancestry recognized

A group of black artists with Nova Scotia roots is recording an 18-song album in Halifax this week as a way of getting members' Métis heritage recognized.

'I don't think I have to accept my identity according to you,' says poet George Elliott Clarke

Canada's former parliamentary poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke, says it's time some African-Nova Scotians get recognition for their Métis ancestry. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Canada's former parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke knows the latest project he's working on might make waves.

He, along with several other artists, is recording a new 18-song album that discusses the struggles of some Atlantic Canadians to get recognition of both their black and Indigenous ancestry.

"If anybody out there gets upset, good, get upset," Clarke said in an interview.

"Don't have a heart attack but be upset as much as you like because I don't think that I have to accept my identity according to you, according to somebody else. I'm tired of that, too old for that."

Making a statement through music

Clarke, originally from Three Mile Plains, N.S., can trace his roots on his mother's side back seven generations to the Black Refugees who arrived in Nova Scotia after the War of 1812. But his family also has Mi'kmaq heritage.

The musical group calls itself the Afro-Métis Nation and the album is expected to be titled the Afro-Métis Constitution.

"We are literally making a statement through music about our existence as a people with a particular heritage, which is part Indigenous as well, of course, as African," Clarke said.

Afro-Métis Nation rehearses a song on an album they are recording this week in Halifax. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

"Through most of our existence as a people here in Nova Scotia, in Canada, in Atlantic Canada … we've never had any trouble being recognized as being black people — we are proud to be black people.

"The part of our identity that is almost never recognized, or never accepted, is our Indigeneity and that bothers me because I think that my wholeness as a person needs to be recognized."

This week in Halifax, Clarke and other vocalists, including world-renowned opera singer Portia White's nephew Chris White, Shelley Hamilton, Russ Kelley, Sugar Plum Croxen and Shari Clarke, are in the studio recording the album of song and poetry.

Toronto-based singer and actor Shelley Hamilton is one of the artists singing on Afro-Métis Nation's new album. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The group will present the songs in a live, invitation-only concert in Halifax on Sunday. The album will later be distributed to the public.

The album is infused with influences from various genres of music, including R&B, folk, Celtic, gospel, rock and traditional Negro spirituals. Other songs on the album pay tribute to Viola Desmond, Portia White and murdered and missing Indigenous women.

Different shades of skin

Hamilton's song Skin explores the ongoing identity issues relating to different shades of skin in the black community, which often includes discussion about the advantages light-skinned blacks have over dark-skinned blacks.

"So many people, for years and for centuries, we've been locked into this identity related to a shade: 'If we can see a shade then we can define who you are,'" the Toronto-based singer and actor said.

"And I wanted to write a song about how we have done that systematically over years and looked at ourselves related to our shade instead of looking at it as, there's many stories to the shades of who we are."

Hamilton, who is also originally from Nova Scotia, said there are many aspects of her Métis culture that she does not know about because those stories were not documented.

"I feel like I'm speaking for voices that never had a chance to be documented."

Musician Chris White is one of the black artists recording an album in Halifax. The group calls itself Afro-Métis Nation. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

In another song on the album, Chris White pays tribute to his grandfather, Rev. Capt. William A. White. 

William White, the son of American slaves, became the first black commissioned officer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force when he enlisted in the No. 2 Construction Battalion — a segregated unit for blacks — in 1917. During the First World War, he was one of the few black officers in the Canadian Army and its only black chaplain.

After the war, he became pastor of Halifax's Cornwallis Street Baptist Church.
The only all-black unit in the Canadian military, in a photo dated November 1916. All the officers were white, except for Rev. Capt. William Andrew White, who was the unit chaplain and served as a captain. One of the songs on the album is about White. (Army Museum Halifax Citadel)

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley

Reporter

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts.