Nova Scotia

'Very bewildering': Backlash after white MLA named to African Nova Scotian, anti-racism files

The decision to appoint a white MLA as the new minister responsible for the province's African Nova Scotian and anti-racism portfolios gathered backlash Tuesday as a move that's 'beyond tone deaf' for some residents.

Veteran MLA Pat Dunn of Pictou Centre was sworn in with the PC cabinet on Tuesday

Pictou Centre MLA Pat Dunn has been handed the files for African Nova Scotian Affairs and the Office of Equity and Anti-Racism Initiatives. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

The decision to appoint a white MLA as the new minister responsible for the province's African Nova Scotian and anti-racism portfolios gathered backlash Tuesday as a move that's "beyond tone deaf" for some residents.

Premier Tim Houston and the rest of his Progressive Conservative cabinet were sworn in Tuesday, including Pat Dunn who has represented Pictou Centre since 2006.

Sean Francois of Dartmouth said he can't understand why Houston wouldn't appoint an African Nova Scotian or Black community leader to the African Nova Scotian Affairs file, even if he had to look outside his own elected PC MLAs.

"People's experiences matter. So someone who isn't African Nova Scotian isn't going to have the same perspectives," said Francois, a community basketball and soccer coach who is African Nova Scotian.

"There has to be representation there so that the community feels that they are being represented, and the concerns can be appropriately voiced."

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston is shown Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, at a swearing-in ceremony at the Halifax Convention Centre. (CBC)

No Progressive Conservative elected in the most recent provincial election is Black.

Dunn, a former teacher and principal, is now minister for communities, culture, tourism and heritage; African Nova Scotian Affairs; the Office of Equity and Anti-Racism Initiatives; and the voluntary sector.

Francois said when a person from a certain community sees someone like themselves in a powerful political role, they feel comfortable and can bring up issues that may be overlooked by someone who doesn't have that background.

For the equity and anti-racism file, Francois said that particular position could have been an opportunity for a woman or someone from the LGBTQ community to take on, if a person of colour could not be found.

When asked what he'd like to see Dunn do next, Francois said relinquishing those roles would be a "commendable" thing to do, but he is doubtful that would ever happen.

To see Dunn hold both roles is "very surprising" in this day and age, Francois said, given social rights movements over the past two years like Black Lives Matter, and the recent discoveries of children's remains on the grounds of former residential schools. 

"It just seems beyond tone deaf based on everything we just discussed with regards to, you know, the climate … and trying to move forward with diversity," Francois said.  

"It's just very bewildering at this point."

Many people online were upset and puzzled by Dunn taking over the roles, while others said he was a good man and urged people not to "jump to conclusions."

After the swearing-in Tuesday, Houston said he'd considered bringing in someone outside his party to fill those two roles but ultimately decided "our democracy works best when the people that are elected are put into positions of accountability."

Houston said he reached his decision after looking at the entire PC caucus and which communities they represented.

Dunn's riding includes the community of Priestville outside New Glasgow.

According to the African Nova Scotian Cultural Tourism Guide, most of the Black inhabitants of New Glasgow are descended from settlers who arrived in the province in the mid to late 1700s.

"Concentrated in the Vale Road area, they have a long tradition of survival and perseverance," reads the guide.

Vale Road connects Priestville and New Glasgow.

Houston said Tuesday he knows the residents of the community have "respect and esteem" for Dunn.

"He's the right person in our cabinet to make sure that the views of the community are respected, that they're heard, and that we work with them. That's our commitment, that's our focus," Houston said.

In the past, Dunn has served as minister of health promotion and protection as well as minister of volunteerism.

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.

(CBC)

With files from Jack Julian

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