Nova Scotia·30 Years Later

How the 1989 Cole Harbour High brawls 'opened eyes and ears' to race relations

Thirty years after the fights, community members look back on how they did — and didn't — change people and the education system.

The brawls that highlighted racial divides in the community began with a snowball fight

Charmaine Willis points to a photograph on the wall of Cole Harbour District High School. She was a Grade 12 student at the school in 1989. (Robert Short/CBC)

It's been 30 years since two brawls rocked Cole Harbour District High School.

The fights, on Jan. 9, 1989, and the day after, brought the Nova Scotia school into the national spotlight because the animosity broke down along community and racial lines.

On one side of the fights were students from the mostly white coastal communities of Eastern Passage and Cow Bay.

On the other side were students from the largely black communities of North Preston, East Preston and Cherry Brook.

"I think we do need to talk about what happened back then, just so that we can get a perspective as to what happened, why it happened, so that history doesn't repeat itself," said Archy Beals, who serves on Nova Scotia's Provincial Advisory Council on Education.

Beals, who graduated from the school in 1986, was also part of the Parent-Student Association of Preston that was formed in the wake of the fights.

Archy Beals serves on Nova Scotia's Provincial Advisory Council on Education and was part of the Parent-Student Association of Preston that was formed in the wake of the fights. (CBC)

"It exposed race relations within the community," Beals said. "It exposed race relations within Nova Scotia, within Canada, within the world.

"It was a situation that created a lot of examples that we can learn from. And have we learned from them? That's the million-dollar question," he said.

Read the reflections from three former Cole Harbour District High School students

Student witnesses who spoke to CBC News say it all started with a snowball fight between groups of Grade 10 boys.

When a particularly large snowball showered one group with snow, the situation escalated.

Christa Webber was in Grade 10 at the time of the brawls. (Robert Short/CBC)

"It was so violent," said Christa Webber, a Grade 10 student from Cole Harbour who saw the fighting start.

"Someone got smashed in the face and their face split open. And if someone fell to the ground, there was kicking when someone was on the ground. There were things like that that I had not seen before."

Fourteen people were charged as a result of the fights.

Some of those charged weren't students, but older friends and relatives of students who travelled to the school to fight after hearing rumours of the conflict.

Charmaine Willis was in Grade 12 at the school that year.

Charmaine Willis was in Grade 12 at Cole Harbour District High School in 1989. (Robert Short/CBC)

She said the student body was largely harmonious before the fighting.

"We were very respectful," she said. "We were all involved in activities, a very diverse group of students that took part in sport activities. There was a youth-on-the-move cultural awareness group. So, it definitely was a very collaborative environment."

Willis said the fights, and the turbulent aftermath, opened a discussion around racial hostility in the school.

"I would say the incident opened up a lot of eyes and ears," she said.

Cole Harbour District High School drew students from North Preston, East Preston, Cherry Brook, Eastern Passage and Cow Bay. (CBC)

Beals said the fights were a turning point in the way the province's school system approached racism and the experience of black students.

He said it led directly to provincial legislation creating the Black Learners Advocacy Committee.

"Out of that snowball came the five-year comprehensive study of the BLAC report, which highlighted inequities in education for the African-Nova Scotian learner."

The BLAC report resulted in the hiring of cross-cultural understanding co-ordinators and African-Nova Scotian support workers in the province's schools.

"They are the ones who interface with students on a regular basis, on a daily basis, who have the expertise to assist students," he said.

Beals said there are still recommendations in the BLAC report that have not been implemented after 25 years.

"You know there's still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done," he said.