Legislators, legal experts and Halifax police were put in the hot seat on Monday during an impassioned community conversation about justice for African Nova Scotians.
The panel discussion held at the Halifax North Memorial Public Library attempted to chart a path forward for relations between the community and law enforcement after decades of discrimination through the controversial use of street checks.
Street checks, the police practice of stopping an individual and collecting and recording their personal information, was banned in Nova Scotia last month after an independent legal opinion found it to be illegal.
A report preceding that opinion found that black people are six times more likely to be street-checked than white people in Halifax, with black men being nine times more likely.
“Certainly this was not only a speaking exercise for me, but certainly a listening exercise,” Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella told reporters.
“It has confirmed and reaffirmed that more work needs to be done, more dialogue needs to occur and we really need to listen to the community, take in what they have to say and together, come up with a plan.”
Due to the sensitive nature of the topics discussed, no recordings were permitted during the event.
But community members challenged panelists on how they plan to address systemic racism in Nova Scotia, offer recourse to individuals who have been wrongfully street-checked in the past, and ensure that biased and racist policing is eliminated in Nova Scotia.
Panelists included Kinsella; Natalie Borden, chair of the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners; Kimberly Franklin, senior legal advisor for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission; and provincial African Nova Scotian Affairs Minister Tony Ince.
When it comes to addressing systemic obstacles for black people in Nova Scotia, Ince implored community members to make their voices heard, particularly by running for office.
Some audience members were troubled by that suggestion, referencing trauma and the onus it places on them, rather than the perpetrators, but Ince stood by it.
“If we don’t see ourselves at the table, all the screaming in the community doesn’t get you much,” he told reporters afterward.
“It gets you a little bit of movement, it gets you reaction. I think we need to be at the table making concrete decisions, being part of those decisions, the policies, all of it.”
Ince said he’s confident the province will apologize for street checks, but he’s not sure when that apology is coming. He also said the Justice Department is working on an African Nova Scotian justice plan that will include community members.
For his part, Kinsella committed his personal attention to any complaints of racist or biased policing brought before him. He said accountability, including disciplinary action for offending officers, and intensive training that takes place more than once a year are all in the cards.
The police chief also acknowledged that a sweeping apology is the first step, and that it must be followed up by members of the force engaging the community after-hours, not in uniform, but as residents and human beings.
Earlier on Monday, he set a date for that apology: Nov. 29.
Data from historical street checks remains in the system, he added, but the ability to enter new data has been disabled. Identities will also be erased from the database in December 2020, and Kinsella encouraged anyone wishing to access their personal records to do so soon using freedom of information legislation.
He also asked anyone who believes they were criminally charged solely on the basis of a street check to come forward, so their case may be re-examined.
Vanessa Fells of the Nova Scotia Decade for People of African Descent Coalition said she remains cautiously optimistic.
“It is a process and is a matter of, as we said, doing what we say we’re going to do,” she explained.
“Saying that not only are we going to have an apology, but we’re going to have actions, we’re going to stick to those actions, and then we have to make sure that there’s accountability.”