Nova Scotia

Pioneering rookie MLAs share passion for community, humble roots

They represent different parties in the Nova Scotia legislature but three newly elected MLAs share humble roots, strong family connections and a passion to fight racism.

Newly elected politicians use debate on throne speech to introduce themselves

Rookie MLAs, from left, Suzy Hansen, Brian Wong and Angela Simmonds. (CBC, Nova Scotia Legislature)

Suzy Hansen, Brian Wong and Angela Simmonds represent different political parties in the Nova Scotia Legislature.

But each can claim being a first, and each told surprisingly similar stories of struggle and personal perseverance during their inaugural speeches at Province House.

Hansen is the first Black woman to represent the constituency of Halifax Needham, and Wong is the first Nova Scotian of Chinese descent elected to the House.

Simmonds is not only the first Black woman the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia has ever had elected, she is also the first Black deputy Speaker.

All three spoke at length about how the support of family and friends contributed to their electoral success, but Hansen and Wong also said the actions of previous governments spurred their political ambitions.

Hansen, a New Democrat, told her colleagues it was the decision of the government of Stephen McNeil in 2018 to eliminate school boards that drove her to seek office.

"The Liberal government's ham-fisted approach to public education is one of the experiences, and actually probably the driving force, that prompted me to join you all here today," said Hansen.

Suzy Hansen was a member of the Halifax Regional School Board in 2018 when it was axed by the Liberal government at the time. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Hansen was a member of the Halifax Regional School Board when the Liberal government brought in the change.

"It was after that experience which was, quite frankly, humiliating and infuriating that I swore I would return to this House — and I meant it — as an elected member."

Wong, the PC's minister of advanced education, told a similar story about his political awakening as a school administrator.

"In 2012, after two years of deep cuts by the NDP government to education, it inspired me to take action," he said.

Wong ran and lost in the 2013 provincial election but was successful this year in winning the seat in Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank.

For Simmonds, the motivation came from wanting to represent a community she strives to emulate. 

Angela Simmonds, the Liberal candidate for Preston, hands out pamphlets and speaks to community members at the North Preston Day Parade in July. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

"I have had many fallen steps along my journey, but I always get back up to redefine success for me," said Simmonds. "That's what Preston is about — vibrant, outstanding, committed people doing outstanding things.

"I rise in the House only because of my ancestors before me, whose shoulders I stand on. But for their wisdom, resilience and strength, I would not be here."

During her 55-minute address, Hansen also paid tribute to dozens of leaders in her community, in particular her mother, Mary, and the community where Mary was born and raised — Africville.

"The garbage trucks and bulldozers may have destroyed our homes in Africville, drowning out the sweet musical sounds and introduced another level of of generational trauma but I am here today as a proud descendant of Africville, as proof that you could tear down Mary West's home, but you couldn't destroy her family."

Although there are more Black representatives in this House than ever before, all four of them sit on the opposition benches, a fact Simmonds mentioned during her 21-minute address.

Wong recalls ongoing racism

"If you go through the throne speech, you will not find the words Black, African Nova Scotian, Mi'kmaw, Indigenous, immigrant, woman, homelessness or poverty," Simmonds said.

Wong spoke of the racism he faced growing up in rural Nova Scotia and said he'd been targeted by racial slurs more times than he could count. 

"I've been called a boat person, I've been called China," he said. "One of my favourites is Fine China.

"To tell you the truth, I've had difficulty all my life defining exactly who I am and what I am."

Wong described filling out a form last week in which he self-identified as a "visible minority" as "one of the toughest decisions since I became an MLA."

He noted his father faced far worse racism during his life, describing a beating in which the aggressor repeatedly yelled profanities and slurs and told him to "go back to China."

"If I were African Nova Scotian, if I were Mi'kmaq, if I were different, if I were physically disabled, you wake up every day and that's the kind of stuff you face," he said.

"We need to do better."

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.