Nova Scotia·Atlantic Voice

Why was a Black-owned housing co-op shrouded in mystery? This descendant found out

A new Atlantic Voice documentary explores why one Antigonish neighbourhood's history has been largely unknown, even to the people who lived in the Nova Scotia town.

Listen to an Atlantic Voice documentary exploring the history of Antigonish's Martin Street co-op

A young woman in a purple puffer jacket stands in front of a small bungalow with peeling paint in the wintertime.
Chantal Phee stands in front of the house her father grew up in on Martin Street, Antigonish's Black-owned housing co-operative. This house is currently vacant, but several of the other houses of the co-op are still occupied. (Rose Murphy/CBC)

Growing up, Chantal Phee always felt a little displaced in her hometown of Antigonish, N.S. — a community that celebrates its deeply rooted Scottish heritage.

"The first boyfriend I ever had, that was the first talk: what was his familial clan name. And we went up to the cemetery and it was just like literally everywhere. And he was like, 'Oh, that's my cousin, oh, this is my cousin,'" Phee said.

"And I remember walking around forever and being like.... My family's from here too, but I don't have that."

Phee's desire to understand her own family's history was piqued by where her father grew up: Martin Street, a group of five small houses that, when built in the 1960s, lay on the outskirts of town.

A family of four - a mother, father, and their 20-something children, smile for the camera.
The Phee family, in their current home in Antigonish. From left: Chantal, her mother Sylvia, brother Jordan, and father Johnny Jr. (Rose Murphy/CBC)

A decade ago, a Christmastime chat with her aunt and grandfather revealed a name to the neighbourhood: The Martin Street Co-operative.

Phee had never heard the name before, and as it turned out, even her own father hadn't known he'd been born into a housing co-operative that was designed to help local Black families gain home ownership.

That spurred Phee to make startling discoveries about what the families faced in creating the co-op in the first place.

Ever since Chantal Phee heard a family member name drop the Martin Street Co-operative, she's wondered: what is it? Even her dad didn't know he'd grown up in the Black-owned housing co-op in Antigonish, or what that co-op even meant. CBC producer Rose Murphy roadtrips with Chantal to find answers in this week's documentary about untold histories, and the power of having a home. Note: A prominent voice in the radio documentary, Jana MacDonald, died unexpectedly on May 19. It's her research that brought many missing details of this mystery to light.

A prominent voice in the radio documentary, Jana MacDonald, died unexpectedly on Friday. It's her research that brought many missing details of this mystery to light.

The project sprang from a local social justice movement — the Antigonish Movement — that gained traction worldwide for its co-operative living principles. Although it spawned the Martin Street Co-Op, few records exist at an institution dedicated to the Antigonish Movement.

"I suspect there's less known about the Martin St. Co-op than one would think," said Pauline MacIntosh of the Coady Institute at St. Francis Xavier University.

But a graduate student at the university managed to dig up some truths about the drawn-out battle between the potential co-op residents and the town. In 1978, Jana MacDonald conducted dozens of interviews with the co-op creators.

"The first thing that they expressed to me was memories and impressions of the opposition. Often this was the only aspect of the project they could still remember," she said.

MacDonald said white residents and town councillors protested the building project, and by the time it was eventually greenlit,  the number of interested Black families had dwindled from 14 down to five.

Once the co-op got underway, "all correspondence, detailed financial and construction progress reports, application petitions were destroyed along with the bulk of the town office files," said MacDonald.

"It was a massive eye-opener and I thought it was really interesting," said Phee.

"That's why I wasn't able to find the information on my family history, it's because it was a lot of lost history. And I think it was a lot of lost history because it's stuff that no one wants to really talk about."

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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with files from Rose Murphy

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