Nova Scotia

Atlantic Film Fest: 1992 doc about racism inspired change in Nova Scotia

The Atlantic Film Festival is featuring on Wednesday night a 1992 documentary that exposed racism against black students in Nova Scotia high schools.

Documentary Speak It! From The Heart Of Black Nova Scotia being featured on Wednesday night

Shawn Grouse was in a 1992 documentary about being a black high school student in Halifax. It inspired him to become an educator himself. (Sylvia Hamilton/National Film Board)

Shawn Grouse says he just wanted to be on TV when he agreed to be in a film about Halifax high school students in the 1990s.

But that experience opened a window to becoming an educator himself.

On Wednesday the Atlantic Film Festival is featuring the National Film Board's Speak It! From The Heart Of Black Nova Scotiaa 1992 documentary by local director Sylvia Hamilton.

'Changed my whole life'

The film exposed racism against black students at a prominently white high school. The documentary attracted international attention from Japan to the United States and won a Gemini award in 1994.

Grouse, then 17 years old, was one of the students in the documentary.

"Me saying, 'Yes' to something once basically changed my whole life," he said.

Inspired to teach

Now 43, Grouse is an educator in Dartmouth, N.S., as a race relations, cultural and human rights facilitator for the Halifax Regional School Board. He's also taught an African-Canadian studies high school course.

Being a part of the film inspired Grouse to get into teaching. He started by running a tutoring program as a teen. The program in his community of Mulgrave Park ran for several years, helping hundreds of kids. 

Shawn Grouse, 43, is an educator in Dartmouth. (Shawn Grouse/Twitter)

Poor representation

When Grouse was in high school, his classmates had low self esteem because of how black people were treated in the classroom. They were often targeted because of their colour, with white teachers criticizing black students more than others, he said.

The only book in class that mentioned a black man was To Kill A Mockingbird. Grouse said he felt the black character was powerless, so refused to read the book. Some classmates told Grouse that one character was better then none at all.

"That empowers me and excites me in what way?" Grouse remembers asking. "How am I supposed to feel motivated?"

Film prompted change

Fellow students, including Halifax-based playwright David Woods, started a culture awareness group in the school, one of several across the province.

Grouse joined, becoming one of the members questioning why Canadian history books ignored black history. At the time, the group didn't know their questions would lead to an improvement.

"There's a lot of great things that kind of happened, all because someone came in with a camera," Grouse said.

That someone was Sylvia Hamilton, director and writer of the film.

Filmmaker and author Sylvia Hamilton directed Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia in 1992. (Gaspereau Press)

Passing on the mentorship

Hamilton came across their group when she was researching about the identity of under-represented African Nova Scotian students in the school system. 

"It's always important for young people of African descent to see themselves reflected in the school system broadly, whether it's in the curriculum they're studying or in the teacher," she said.

Shawn Grouse, then 17, was featured in the film about the struggles of Halifax's black high school students. (Sylvia Hamilton/National Film Board)

The group of students interviewed for the film went on to take a stand during a presentation to the Halifax Regional School Board, and at schools around the province. 

African Nova Scotian history and programs for black students are more accessible today, Grouse said, and this documentary was a large part of making that happen. 

"Now I have these lifelong friendships, mentors, and as a result, I have younger individuals who I think I've mentored," he said.


Kyah Sparks


Kyah Sparks is a reporter/editor with CBC Nova Scotia. Born and raised in East Preston, N.S., she has worked in television and digital news in Halifax.