Halifax's north end is a happening place these days. In the past couple of years, several restaurants and bars have opened and they're packed most nights of the week.

This part of Halifax has strong African-Nova Scotian roots. Recently, some people have noticed that not many of the employees at these new establishments reflect the diversity of the north end community and they've noticed the same thing about the clientele. 

Patricia Cuttell calls Halifax's north end one of the most diverse communities in Nova Scotia. As the executive director of the North End Business Association, it's her job to point out: why are there so few African Nova Scotians in the new bars and restaurants on Gottingen and Agricola Streets?

"If you have a healthy community, you have a healthy business community. It would be nice if we get to a point where the diversity of the community is also reflected in the diversity of the workforce," she said.

Cuttell thinks north end businesses could lead the way in the province to show off a diverse, vibrant workforce.

'We have to address the racism'

She doesn't think the lack of diversity within the businesses is the "fault" of the owners. She is not accusing them of being racist; not at all. Rather, she thinks systemic racism is at work.

"We have to address the racism," Cuttell said. "We are a racist culture. It's a hard topic to deal with. There's not people walking around making racist slurs. It's so deep-seated."

Rodney Small

Rodney Small is about to graduate from Dalhousie University's Bachelor of Management program. (CBC)

Lindell Smith agrees with Cuttell. He grew up in Uniacke Square and co-founded a recording studio and arts centre for youth called Centreline. He's also the youth programmer at the Halifax North Memorial library.

Smith said many of his friends who live nearby don't even know the names of these new bars and restaurants.

The two worlds just don't collide.

"Kinda sucks for the community because why can't we be part of this new growing community, which maybe we aren't 100 per cent happy with, but we've got to embrace it, so why can't we be part of that?" said Smith.

He has at least a partial explanation for the disconnect. 

"The race issue in Halifax, Nova Scotia is so deep rooted, where it's embedded in the culture. If you're around it and you live it, it's just so hard to get it out of your system," said Smith.

Connecting to the community

He would like the new businesses to make more of an effort to connect to the neighbourhoods that have been part of the fabric of the north end community for years.

Stephen Nelson agrees there's a divide.

He's the program director at the Community YMCA on Gottingen Street. He says it's important for people from the African-Nova Scotian community to see themselves in these businesses.

"I feel like there is a large gap, if I don't know someone there... I'm not even going to try to go in a store that doesn't look like me," he said.

Rodney Small also says systemic racism is alive and well in Halifax. He grew up on Creighton Street and is about to graduate from Dalhousie University's Bachelor of Management program.

He works at Halifax's Common Good Solutions, a business development group that focuses on community.

Small says everyone he knows has noticed this lack of diversity in north end businesses, but no one really wants to talk about it.

"We all get a little leery of the word racism...but here in Nova Scotia we have to learn to accept it. Until we learn to accept the problem we are dealing with, we're not going to be able to solve the issue. You have to recognize your problem before you go for help," he said.

'We all get a little leery of the word racism...but here in Nova Scotia we have to learn to accept it' - Rodney Small

And the problem is deep.

Small says there's a geographical divide within the north end. He says Cunard to North Street, plus Uniacke Square is an area that's been isolated from the rest of the city for years.

Small says people who grew up there call it "the box." He says it's hard for some people to leave there, because within the so-called box they feel valued. 

"How come we have a vibrant north end [and] then another part of the north end that individuals are just not engaging with the rest of the community?" said Small.

'That's not where I belong'

Small has has spent a lot of time away from that box, but the feeling is so ingrained, he still doesn't feel comfortable in these new bars and cafés in the north end.

"It becomes a part of our norm and our thought process to create that divide," said Small. "That's not where I belong and I guess I feel I'm not going to there."

Small says if one of these bars were located on Queen Street in Toronto, it would be a different situation. He'd feel comfortable going in.

He says that's likely why so many African-Nova Scotia youth from Halifax feel they have to leave Halifax to grow up.

Small says it's not just the north end where this lack of diversity is a problem, but the entire province. He thinks it would be news if the north end businesses were indeed diverse. That they are not diverse as the norm for Nova Scotia, he says.

Small says these conversations about racism have been happening for far too long.

"There's no possible way in 2015 we should be having these conversations. This is sad... We all should be ashamed of ourselves."

Solutions

Small, Smith and Nelson all say better communication will help and the two groups need to get together and communicate.

Smith says he's always willing to talk about diversity with any businesses.

"I'm easy to find — Google me!" he says.

Smith says simple gestures like a community barbecue could help or handing out coupons to encourage people from the community to try out a new place.

Small would like to see landlords rent to African-Nova Scotian entrepreneurs. He'd like businesses to hire African-Nova Scotian employees.

He'd also like this gap to be tackled by organizations such as the Black Business Initiative. Ultimately, he says the solution lies with business owners, landlords, community groups, individuals and government.

There will more on this story Wednesday when we hear from business owners. Check back for "Halifax: A city with two north ends — Part 2."