What to Read, What to Watch…

The 2015 book The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, The Hurt, the Hope and the Healing is remarkable for several reasons.  First it’s the first and only history of the Home.  Second, it offers a scathing rebuke of the profession and consciences of Nova Scotia’s social workers.  Finally, in well-crafted interviews, the book serves as a not-so-gentle reminder of what went on at the Home for Colored Children. 

As many of you recall, in one of the first “trials” for the Stephen McNeil government, in 2013 he agreed to compensate former residents, and open an inquiry about what indeed had happened there.  The original Home was closed in 1989 but continued until about 10 years ago, after thousands of black children from the 1920s on and from across the province, had been tossed into the Home which was little more than a quasi-prison environment. 

Author Wanda Lauren Taylor (from her book cover)

The social workers who delivered the children to the door – some of whom were just babies, and toddlers – never looked back.  The idea was to hide away black children whose parents had either died, or could no longer care for them – usually due to living in utter poverty, caused by lack of income and poverty of the spirit. Much of it stemming from anti-Black racism which was endemic to NS.

“The outstanding fact of this Home is the cleanliness of the place. The floors are scrubbed white and there is not one thing out of place. One wonders if the children just sit on the benches of the playroom without moving, because nothing is out of place. Of course there were no toys or play material to be used.”

– Lillian Romkey, NS social worker, from her 1948 inspection of the Home

About 50 years ago, the book’s author, Wanda Lauren Taylor, was herself put into foster care at the age of 18 months. Her mother had been hit by a car as she stepped off the bus in East Preston.  The mother was returning from her job as a domestic in the home of former Dartmouth mayor I K Akerley.  The mother survived, but her daughter – the  book’s author — narrowly missed the fate of her older siblings who were sent to the Home.

It is impossible not to be horrified and furious with what happened to children at the Home.  The Home ran a farm of sorts and insisted the children work on weeding, harvesting and looking after livestock.  Teenagers often had to do farmwork rather than attend school.  Despite growing literally tonnes of food on the surrounding 300 plus acre farm, the children always went hungry.  As far back as 1948, social worker Lillian Romkey, in a visit to the Home, noticed the staff eating a roasted chicken dinner while the children had only soup made of potatoes, milk and fish bones.  When the cook saw the outsider, she quickly cut up bread and butter to complement the kids’ dinner.  She told Romkey that the children got two apples a day– for dessert. From 1948 to 1980, the NS government allocated $3.50 a day for each resident of the Home.  The government spent more than $10 a day on each child in care in the province’s white orphanages.  Physical and sexual abuse were rampant as were teenage pregnancies (due to rapes by male staff).  

The province, the social workers, the teachers at the school (the Henry G Bauld Memorial School which was located on the grounds so outsiders could not see) ignored the racism, the violence and the inhumanity doled out to the children. The Bauld school remained open for 20 years.

Bob Brooks photographed the Home

The photographs published in the book are startling and very revealing.  Bob Brooks, a NS photographer, somehow got inside and captured details – such as the fact that the “playroom” had few if any toys; the rooms had bare floors and walls, with minimal furniture; the children’s clothes were threadbare, and of course the children’s despair and loneliness  in the institutional setting was evident.

In 2019, the government released its 550 page report, Journey to Light: A Different Way Forward: Final Report of the Restorative Inquiry– Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children more than 17 years after several former residents tried to sue the province for the abuse they suffered at the Home. By 2015, he NS government also had to pay nearly $5 million as of a successful lawsuit on behalf of about 155 former residents.

By happy coincidence, today’s Halifax Examiner, has two major articles about the NS Home for Coloured Children. One deals with, arguably, one of the most famous residents of the Home — Abdoul Abdi. He is the young Black man who in 2017-18 faced deportation from Canada. Many in Halifax and across the country fought his deportation because he had served time for assault. Finally, the federal government stopped his deportation order. Abdi, born in Saudi Arabia, came to Canada as a refugee.

He never got citizenship because, after he became a ward of the province, no social worker bothered to apply for it on his behalf. As a child, he been bounced from a Halifax foster home where he and his sister Fatouma faced violence and sexual assault. He suffered there for three years. Abdoul was then placed in the Home for Colored Children — where he was also sexually assaulted. This quotation is from Tim Bousquet’s article in today’s Examiner.

(left) Abdoul Abdi, and (right) Fatouma Abdi

“During his time spent at the NSHCC [Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children], Abdoul was repeatedly sexually abused by a staff member,” reads the lawsuit. “On one occasion, the abuse was witnessed by another NSHCC staff member. CAS [Children’s Aid Society] Halifax initiated an investigation into the sexual abuse perpetrated by staff of the NSHCC shortly after Abdoul was removed from the placement in 2008. CAS Halifax had received a referral from the Dartmouth District Office of Child Welfare over concerns that a staff member was sexually abusing male youth. One incident described in the referral involved a staff member exiting Abdoul’s bedroom while he was pulling his pants up.”…

from a lawsuit filed against the province of Nova Scotia and the then-Children’s Aid Society alleging repeated incidents of childhood abuse while they were children and wards of the province. 

A second article today is by El Jones . She looks at the all but shattered life of Fatouma Abdi, Abdoul’s slightly older sister, who was also left an orphan when she was new to Canada. She was sexually assaulted and pimped out in foster care, even during her incarceration at the youth facility, the Wood Street Secure Centre in Truro. She had her children taken from her, and had one child die under tragic circumstances. She, like her brother, was terrified by deportation and was threatened with it by the federal government. Her gruelling yet valuable story is today published in the Examiner here.

Yesterday, Zane Woodford ‘s column dealt with real estate — the Home’s vast real estate in Cherry Brook is now owned by the Akoma Holdings. Akoma runs the Akoma Family Centre which offers residential care for teens. The Centre is the successor to the NS Home for Colored Children. Akoma now plans to build seniors’ housing on the site.

What to Watch…

Black Like Me

I hesitated before watch this 1964 film, Black Like Me.  Of course way back when, I did read the book. It’s the true story of a white journalist in the southern US, who chemically darkens his skin and “passes” for a Black person.  What I expected, and what I saw were very different.  I expected a sentimental and “liberal” film. For the most part the film was a shocking look at life for Black Americans in the early ‘60s.  The main character went from town to town, in Louisiana or Mississippi, on the bus.  As a Black man, he had to sit at the back, and with other Blacks and was prevented from getting off the bus (as the whites did) at rest stops.  To humiliate, no washroom breaks were allowed. In most towns, he had to scramble to find a room in a hotel or a rooming house. Sometimes he had to beg total strangers for a place to stay.  In some towns he was hard-pressed to find even one restaurant that served Blacks. His life was in constant danger from drunk white locals, from the police– the film shows him under threat. 

The movie doesn’t let up for five minutes.  In one town, hoping for a friendly welcome, he goes to the home of a “liberal” white journalist he knows. The man and his wife are clearly fearful about even having him visit– as a Black man.  That scene was well done and chilling.  

James Whitmore plays the lead character. I wouldn’t say he’s all that convincing, but the situation he faces is convincing and skillfully set up.  He gets into trouble because he – as a white person – cannot act deferential, and he still demands some privilege.  He frequently slips up and acts “white”.  That was interesting.

Book cover, drinking fountain, and book’s author John H Griffin

I’m glad I saw the film – all these years after reading the book.  You can watch it on Kanopy for free;  all you need is your Halifax Public Library card. 

Arab Blues is a 2019 film from Tunisia.  It’s cute and clever! Every day has clear blue skies, the ocean sparkles blue, and the streets of Tunis appear lively and exciting. The protagonist is Selma, a trained psychoanalyst who has returned home after years of study Paris. 

In Tunisia, everything conspires to make it nearly impossible for her to actually earn a living from treating patients on her couch in her modest roof-top apartment.  The original title of the film is Un Divan à Tunis, which is a more accurate title.  A photograph of Freud, sporting a red fez, hangs near her front door.  Her detractors insist he must be either her father, a Jew, or a business tycoon!  Again, I saw it on Kanopy. Here’s the trailer.

Freud with Fez, and lead actor Golshifteh Farahani

The Feeling of Being Watched

A fascinating feature American documentary is The Feeling of Being Watched.  This 2018 film was made by Assia Bendaoui, a journalist and filmmaker who grew up in a suburb of Chicago.  Bridgeview, Illinois is  her community made up of thousands of immigrant Arab Americans, and Palestinian Americans who work as professionals and are law abiding.   But every since she was a teenager, she and her friends and their parents have noticed parked cars with white guys inside; men in suits hanging out near the mosque, and even FBI agents coming to her parents’ home. 

She uncovers the FBI’s Operation Vulgar Betrayal and the G-men behind it.   One thing leads to another, and eventually the community protests the FBI surveillance on them – both years before and years after 9-11.  A memorable protest slogan is “No Chai for the FBI” – because the organisation frequently visited homes and demanded entry and conversation with residents.

As Bendaoui notes ruefully, “Thos who do the watching are also being watched.”  She uncovers the anti-Arab animus of the US government and its agencies, and with freedom of information requests manages to piece together and expose the 20 plus year Operation Vulgar Betrayal. Here is the trailer.

This too is on Kanopy!

More Reading! “Falwelling from Grace,” and Faith, Hope, No Charity

It’s not every journalist blogger who can say someone famous is the image of his more famous old man.   But I can. Keep reading.

A writer at the Tyee, Dorothy Woodend, in her article Falwelling from Grace: The Pool Boy, the Preacher and His Wife examines the delicious scandal hounding what was this generation’s arguable prince of Evangelism, Jerry Falwell Jr.  Falwell Jr. and his brother now head his dad’s multi-billion dollar media empire, and private college, Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia which his dad started in 1981. 

A recent sex scandal has put Falwell Jr. on an indefinite leave of absence from his duties!  

The scandal involves a seven-year sexual relationship — a menage a quatre? –with the “pool boy” Giancarlo Granda, Falwell Jr,  his “holier than thou” wife Becki, and Becki’s personal assistant.  The details are salacious.  All the more so when one realizes the Falwell empire is built on the brand of no sex before marriage, women should wear skirts and be modest, no extra-marital sex, no inter-racial coupling and all glory to God.  Oh yes, also bashing gays: “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” as Falwell Sr. once told me. 

I interviewed him for my 1985 book, Faith, Hope, No Charity, An Inside Look at the Born Again Movement in Canada and the United States. 

“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

-Rev. Jerry Falwell, TV Evangelist

As I look back through the book – after all this time– I realize the Christian religious right has grown exponentially in the last 30 years.  At the time, I went to a number of the big evangelical rallies in the US.  At one in Richmond, VA, Falwell Sr. shouted out, “I know why you don’t like the Jew:  he can make more money accidentally than you can make on purpose.”  In the interview, he told me it was merely a joke.

As if to walk it back, he explained, “The Jews are the Chosen People of God.  I’m walking around blessing them wherever I go.”

Somehow Jewish leaders of the time didn’t look too kindly on his comments. The then-president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations said, it was, “no coincidence that the rise of rightwing Christian fundamentalism has been  accompanied by the most serious outbreak of Anti-Semitism in America since World War II.”

Falwell Sr. admitted on his hit TV show, The Old Time Gospel Hour, that because of his 100% support for Israel (ask me why), he received more hate letters and death threats than any other stand he had taken.

“No one doubted the sincerity of the 2000 people who showed up for Jerry Falwell’s “I Love America” rally in Trenton. You had to love America something powerful to overlook the bleak, grey, downtown squalor that is the capital of New Jersey.”

From Faith, Hope, No Charity, p. 39

 But I digress —  Sex scandals also all but toppled infamous televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jimmy Bakker—good friends and associates of Falwell Sr. But somehow he hung on and got very, very rich.

Featured photograph at the top: Children at the NS Home for Colored Children (no date); Courtesy of Atlantic CTV News.

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