Nova Scotia

MLAs speak in support of colleague after racist comments come to light

Angela Simmonds said she was overwhelmed and moved by her colleagues' support.

Angela Simmonds was the target of remarks by a now-former political staffer

Preston MLA Angela Simmonds said she was overwhelmed by the support shown to her and other Black MLAs by colleagues in the House on Friday. (CBC)

Opposition members stood in solidarity Friday with Liberal MLA Angela Simmonds at Province House after learning she was the subject of racist comments by a political staffer.

The staffer, who worked with the Justice Department, was fired by Premier Tim Houston on Thursday after he learned of the comments. The premier informed Simmonds and Liberal Leader Iain Rankin of what happened shortly after he learned about it.

On Friday, during members' statements at Province House, all Liberal MLAs and some New Democrats dedicated their statements to speaking in support of Simmonds, as well as the other Black MLAs in the House — Ali Duale, Suzy Hansen and Tony Ince.

Simmonds said she was overwhelmed and moved by the support of her colleagues.

"I have fought issues before, but it was the very first time in a long time where it was a family and I could just feel people's emotions forming," she told reporters at Province House.

"It was a complete privilege and honour to be standing there witnessing that."

A woman looks at the camera
Suzy Hansen is the New Democrat MLA for Halifax Needham. (Robert Short/CBC)

While racism might not be regularly discussed on the floor of the legislature, Simmonds said current and past Black MLAs have been having these conversations and experiences. The conversations need to keep happening, she said.

"We need to be comfortable in our discomfort," Simmonds said. "Saying, 'We acknowledge it and we care,' is not enough.

"It is not enough because we were elected officials to be here and it is not OK to say that we are going to do better. We need to see that we're doing better."

Hansen, the NDP member for Halifax Needham, said it's one thing for conversations to happen inside the chamber, but she said those conversations also need to happen in smaller groups among MLAs.

"We need to have some heart-to-heart conversations, to be uncomfortable, to feel that, but also to share," she told reporters.

"And we need to do that in a space that's going to be safe for everyone."

Premier Tim Houston said his government is working on an anti-racism piece of legislation. (Robert Short/CBC)

The premier told reporters that much work remains to fight racism in the province and his government is committed to doing its part.

"There's a lot of initiatives, many initiatives that had already been started by the previous government through the Office of Equity and Anti-Racism. We support those strongly and we'll continue to do as much as possible to fight racism in this province," said Houston.

Simmonds and the Liberals have argued the situation that played out Thursday illustrates the need for a bill they've put forward that would define racism and hate, and create an action plan to remove it from government departments and Crown corporations.

Duale announced that beginning Tuesday, as a form of protest, he will not take his seat in the House during the fall sitting unless that bill is passed.

The Halifax-Armdale MLA said the bill was the key reason he entered politics, and a legislature that cannot support such a bill cannot be considered the people's House.

Ali Duale speaks to reporters about Bill 12 outside the chamber at Province House on Friday. (Robert Short/CBC)

"If these things are taking place inside this House, do you think the community is safe? If this happens [to] one of us, do you think anybody is safe? And if this is ignored, do you think we believe there is justice, fairness and human rights? I don't think so, and that's why I'm making this decision," said Duale.

Rankin said he supports Duale's protest.

Houston said he backs the intent of the Liberals' bill, but said something similar is already being drafted by the Office of Equity and Anti-Racism. While he doesn't think it will be ready in time for this sitting, the premier said it would marry elements of the Liberal bill and he's willing to work with them.

"We just need to make sure that we do the work to get it right [before] we move forward," said Houston.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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