Nova Scotia

Preston group upset premier singled community out for COVID-19 criticism

A group advocating for better pandemic support in a historic black Nova Scotian community says the premier should not have singled them out as COVID-19 rule-breakers, since they had already asked for a testing site.

'We're very concerned that this might be a fallout from this'

Nzingha Bernard Millar of the Preston Community COVID-19 Response Team says Premier Stephen McNeil was not accurate in describing the Preston area as intentional COVID-19 rule-breakers. (Submitted by Nzingha Bernard Millar)

A group advocating for better pandemic support in a historic black Nova Scotian community is wondering why the premier has singled them out as COVID-19 rule-breakers, when they were the ones who asked for a testing site in the first place.

Nzingha Bernard Millar said she was disappointed to hear comments from Premier Stephen McNeil and chief medical health officer Dr. Robert Strang on Tuesday about how the province is focusing on virus "hotspots" by setting up mobile testing units in East Preston and North Preston, along with the predominantly white community of Enfield.

The premier also said he's heard people are hosting parties in those communities, which could lead to more people getting sick and COVID-19 spreading within neighbourhoods.

Millar speaks for a group of political, medical and community leaders called Preston Community COVID-19 Response Team. 

She said the "wrongful impression" left by McNeil that the province is responding to areas where people keep wilfully breaking public health rules is simply not true.

"It was our community that actually pushed and called and appealed for something to be done," Millar told CBC Nova Scotia's Information Morning on Wednesday.

Mistrust and racism

She added the group is in close contact with public health officials, and had asked for a testing site since they expected there would be delays in learning about the various rules in the Preston area.

This delay involves many factors, Millar said, including how the Preston communities are physically and culturally isolated, there are many seniors, some don't have internet access, and literacy is an issue due to how the public education system left residents behind.

There's also a general mistrust for public institutions because of anti-black racism in Nova Scotia, Millar said.

In response to McNeil's comments about parties, Millar said the Preston COVID-19 team is "well-entrenched" in the community and aware of what's going on. They have a direct link to the medical officer for the area, as well as the chief deputy medical officer.

"If we had information that people were still at this point defying any orders for social distancing, it's something that we would have already had evidence of — and I can say at this point that we do not," Millar said.

When asked about how many COVID-19 complaints the RCMP has received in the three areas, spokesperson Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said the force is not providing the number of calls, or a breakdown of tickets issued by community. 

Comments carry stigma, stereotypes

The Preston group is also questioning why the province has decided now is the time to single out specific communities, when both Strang and McNeil have said for weeks it's not helpful or fair to do so.

Millar said their language was especially problematic since it advances stereotypes around how there's excessive partying in black communities, and people there "just won't listen."

Since the Preston communities are so tightly knit, Millar said they're worried individuals' privacy will be affected, and employers could stop residents from working even if they've tested negative for COVID-19.

"We're very concerned that this might be a fallout from this," Millar said.

Even with these challenges, Millar said the community has their testing site up and running. They have filled out their registration slots for the remainder of this week — something Enfield has not yet done.

Although McNeil also mentioned Enfield as a concerning virus hotspot, Millar said the prejudice and impact won't be the same for the majority-white community.

Premier says shaming black communities not his 'intention'

McNeil said Wednesday that creating more distrust between vulnerable black communities and the province was "not our intention, and certainly not our wish or hope."

The premier said he and Strang were frustrated by ongoing reports that people were still ignoring public health initiatives around gatherings. They only wanted to highlight how they are "aggressively tracking" this virus and the steps they are taking in all three areas that will be applied across Nova Scotia, as needed.

The message Tuesday was meant generally for all Nova Scotians who are choosing not to follow public health rules, McNeil said.

When asked how he knew the three communities were indeed hot spots, McNeil said it was based on the "advice of public health."

He said public health officials "reached out" to these areas, and thanked all three communities for being "outstanding" and extremely supportive of bringing in mobile or temporary test sites.

Preston looks for tailored virus supports

Millar said she's hoping to see the premier shift focus to how the government can provide specific resources to marginalized black communities.

This would include emergency housing for those who are required to self-isolate, since Millar said multiple generations are often living under one roof, fast-tracked financial support, and mental health and wellness support.

McNeil said Wednesday the province would "absolutely" work on the supports required in Preston, whether that means providing different living arrangements or other needs.

But Millar said she was not reassured by McNeil's words, since the community has to "constantly" do things themselves. They are already looking at what they can do to immediately provide emergency shelter.

"It's not that we were supporting public health. We're supporting each other, in fact," Millar said. 

"We are hopeful that the province will take this seriously because this is what is required to make sure that all folks in our community are safe and healthy. And I have to say confidently that everyone in our community is ready to do what is required."


With files from Information Morning