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Halifax's race problem is pretending it doesn't have a race problem

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Africville, Halifax in 1965

Last week, the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market announced that several "prepared food vendors" would be moved from the market's busy main level up to its mezzanine level. According to the Halifax Port Authority (the government agency in charge of the market, not to be confused with the Halifax Party Authority, which used to be some drunk dude's house on Hunter street) this will be done to make room for more farmers. Which, fine, makes sense since it is, after all, a farmers market. Farmers gonna farm, I guess. Here's where things get tricky: all of the vendors asked to move were "ethnic" foods, including Mary's African Cuisine, Viji's Veggies, Stella's, Pierogis 4 U, Turkish Cuisine and Amin's Indian food. Meanwhile, two other prepared food vendors -- Julien's Pastry Shop and The Cake Lady -- are allowed to stay where they are on the first floor.

It would be easy to argue that there aren't any racial undertones to this situation. After all, pierogies fall pretty firmly into the camp of Foods Traditionally Consumed By White People. The argument put forth by the Port Authority that they'd prefer to have all of the farmers on one level and all of the ready-to-eat food on another seems reasonable enough at first glance. And if there are enough businesses operating on the mezzanine, well, won't that just draw more traffic up there? Plus, the Port Authority is really, really insistent that "Ethnicity has nothing to do with this decision."

First of all, I think there are probably racial undertones to anything that even just maybe sort of seems to have racial undertones. Secondly, I feel pretty cautious about anyone who feels the need to insist that no, for sure, this decision which impacts only "ethnic food" vendors definitely has nothing to do with ethnicity. Finally, I'm skeptical of claims of not-racism because this is Halifax, a city that struggles with its deep-seated racism. Not only that, but this is the same farmers market that a few years ago considered flat out getting rid of the "ethnic" vendors based on the idea that cruise ship passengers shopping at the market are looking for "authentic maritime culture."

Of course, what they mean by "authentic maritime culture" is: white people culture. Specifically, they mean the pseudo Scottish-Irish-Celtic culture the east coast is famous for. They for sure do not mean M'ikmaq culture (although there's nothing more authentically maritime than that), or Black Nova Scotian culture (in spite of the fact that there's been a thriving Black population in Nova Scotia since the 1700s), or any of the other races or ethnicities that been in and around Halifax for hundreds of years. In Halifax municipal government speak, maritimer is synonymous with white and everyone else is a come-from-away. Even if their family has been occupying this land since long before the white people arrived.

I love Halifax. Both of my father's parents grew up in the north end, and I was lucky enough to visit at least once a year when I was growing up. Later, I moved there for school and wound up staying for nearly a decade. It's one of the nicest places I've ever lived, and has a lot going for it -- friendly people, a great local arts scene, a sweet work-to-live-not-live-to-work vibe and a really big hill with a clock tower on it. It's also the most white supremacist places I've ever lived, and I say that as someone who grew up in a city that used to be called Berlin and at one point had a bust of Kaiser Wilhelm in a downtown park.

A big part of Halifax's race problem is that it doesn't want to admit that it has a race problem. Ask most people about the destruction of Africville (a predominantly Black community that was literally razed to the ground in the 1960s) and they'll glibly tell you that it needed to be torn down to build the new bridge and anyway wasn't it, like, actually a dump? They don't want to hear about the tight-knit community that existed there; they'd rather not know about how the provincial and municipal governments purposefully placed a prison, an infectious disease hospital, a slaughterhouse, a fecal waste depository and, yes, finally the town dump next to Africville. If you mention the fact that the Africville church was secretly demolished by the city at night to limit protests, they'll roll their eyes and say that was a long time ago and why isn't everyone over that by now.

It was not a long time ago. The church was torn down in 1969. The final house in Africville was demolished in 1970. And the pervasive racism that led to the demise of Africville is still going strong in Halifax today. According to Sherwood Hines, three businesses in Halifax have been fined in the last year for not serving Black customers. IT IS 2015 AND BUSINESSES IN HALIFAX ARE FULLY NOT SERVING PEOPLE BECAUSE OF THE COLOUR OF THEIR SKIN. That is literally a thing that is happening and I don't even know what to say about except: Halifax, you should be fucking better than that.

During the last few years that I lived in Halifax there was a lot of talk about "revitalizing" the north end. On the surface, this seemed like a great idea, especially since there was a several-mile radius that contained no banks or grocery stores or pharmacies. I was like, "Perfect, I can't wait to not have to haul food all the way from Quinpool road. Bring on the revitalization." Except, of course, what folks meant by "revitalization" was gentrification. Almost all of the new businesses that have moved into the north end are owned by white people, employ a primarily white staff, and serve white customers. The Black population in the north end no longer feel like they belong in their own neighbourhood.

The movement of the "ethnic" food vendors and the gentrification of the north end are all part of the same problem: cultural erasure and whitewashing. White Nova Scotians are eager to preserve the idea that maritime culture is a bunch of white people singing sea shanties and downing cod, and the folks selling samosas and dolmas don't fit into that narrative arc. But you know what, Halifax? Not only is that narrative racist, reductionist and completely inaccurate, it's also played out. YOU ARE BETTER THAN A BUNCH OF DRUNK FRAT DUDES PUKING ON THE FLOOR OF THE SPLIT CROW BETWEEN VERSES OF BARRETT'S PRIVATEERS. Nova Scotia is diverse. Nova Scotia has always been diverse. How about we recognize that and celebrate it instead of tucking away those inconvenient shish taouk vendors and pretending that Black culture isn't a thing that's been happening in Nova Scotia for three hundred years?

Halifax, you need to get your shit together. You have an amazing population, and it's time to start serving all of them.

 

Photo: canadianencyclopedia.ca

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