Nova Scotia

'We want to be better judges,' says N.S. chief justice at racism meeting

About 45 Nova Scotian judges spent Thursday and Friday meeting with about 45 black community leaders at the Black Cultural Centre.

Dozens of judges meet with black community leaders in 'never-ending journey' to judicial equity

Nova Scotia Chief Justice Michael MacDonald said for white people, racism can be a concept. For black people, 'it's trauma.' (CBC)

Michael MacDonald describes himself as a "white man who faced no barriers in life," and says that doesn't always give him the full picture from the bench as the chief justice of Nova Scotia.

That's why he and about 45 other judges spent Thursday and Friday meeting with about 45 African-Nova Scotian community leaders at the Black Cultural Centre in Cherry Brook, N.S.

They also climbed onto a bus for a guided tour of Africville, Lake Loon, Cherry Brook, East Preston and North Preston with Carolyn Thomas of Black Heritage Tours.

"We want to be better judges, and to be better judges, we would have to understand world views that aren't necessarily our world views," MacDonald said Friday.

In 2017, Nova Scotia made two landmark judicial appointments that brought the provincial bench closer to racial and gender equity than it has ever been. Women make up about half of the family and provincial court judges.

Dozens of community leaders met with Nova Scotia judges to talk about judicial equity. (CBC)

MacDonald said those are steps in the right direction, but they are steps on a long road.

"Systemic racism exists in this province. I think for white people, racism may be viewed as a concept. For [African-Nova Scotians], it's something they face. It's trauma," he said.

He said statistics show that in Nova Scotia and across Canada, black people are put in prison at a higher rate than most populations.

MacDonald said one session at the two-day conference dealt with the science behind unconscious bias.

"A huge first step is just acknowledging it. That's not unique to one culture. We all are products of what we've internalized in our lives," he said. The solution is "to be conscious that we all have unconscious biases."

He said face-to-face time in a regular, non-courtroom setting can help them become better judges.

Meeting with black youths at Mulgrave Park let him show the youths a new side of the justice system, MacDonald said.

"We bring them to court. We had justice camp in April. I threw the judges' robes and the lawyers' robes on them and we had fun."

'Cascade' of injustice

Robert Wright, a social worker in private practice, has long been an advocate for judicial equity in Nova Scotia. He said black people are more often stopped by police, more often arrested, more often charged and more often convicted.

Once jailed, black people tend to serve longer sentences and receive less help than non-black people, Wright said.

"There's a whole cascade of ways in which people of African descent are ill-served by the criminal justice system."

Social worker Robert Wright said the pursuit of judicial equity is a 'never-ending journey.' (CBC)

Wright said many First Nations people in Nova Scotia face the same, or even greater, problems.

Non-black people working in the justice system can help by learning more about history and attending conferences like the one at the Black Cultural Centre, Wright said. He also wants to see more black social workers, police officers, probation officers, lawyers and judges.

Wright said the conference was a "statement of the new relationship" being built between the judiciary and African-Nova Scotian communities.

"Nova Scotia recently appointed a number of African-Nova Scotians and a First Nations person to the bench, which has brought the number of black judges on the provincial bench to an all-time high," he said. "There are lots of things that can be done, and there is some evidence that the province is moving in that direction."

Wright said keeping the scales of justice balanced is a permanent quest.

"The pursuit of justice for all people in Nova Scotia will be a never-ending journey. Till that becomes part of our fabric, I won't be satisfied."