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Policing Black lives in rural Nova Scotia, an interview with Jessica Bundy

Photo Town of Digby

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In terms of racism and policing much of the focus has been on Halifax’s urban core and the Halifax Regional Police. However, members of African Nova Scotian communities in rural Nova Scotia, mostly policed by RCMP officers, have their own stories to tell. 

We got a bit of a taste of what these rural policing experiences are like in Lynn Jones’ recent encounter with Truro police, and in those parts of the Wortley report that deal with the experiences of Black people in Lucasville, the Prestons, and elsewhere.

Jessica Bundy is a young African Nova Scotian academic who documented stories of Black residents of the Town of Digby and surrounding area while writing ‘Nova Scotia’s Best Kept Secret’: African Nova Scotian Perceptions of the Police in Digby for her MA thesis at Acadia University in 2017. 

Bundy is now a PhD student at the University of Toronto, where, under the supervision of Scot Wortley, she explores experiences of the urban African Nova Scotian community with the criminal justice system, specifically the police.  

Bundy’s Masters thesis is a fascinating read. The nine African Nova Scotians, young and old, male and female, talk about feeling unprotected and often targeted by local police.

Of the nine participants, when asked if they felt that all members of Digby, Black and white, are treated the same by police, eight answered no. Several participants also stated they would not call the police, no matter how severe the situation was. Participants also talked about teaching their children and the youth in the community—particularly young African Nova Scotian men—what to do in confrontations with the police.

“We are terrorized, don’t trust the police, don’t trust the system, once they get their hands on you they’ll throw everything at you and hope something sticks,” an African Nova Scotian woman tells Bundy.

“Any time and I say this, I will stand by it, I will sign on the dotted line on it, any interaction I’ve ever had with a cop, even if the white person is bold dead in the wrong, if there’s a Black person there, they’re going in. Every. Single. Time,” a Black man tells Bundy.

“If you got a white young guy walking downtown or two or three of them standing in front of a store, the police would drive by and not say nothing to them but if two or three Black guys were standing in front of the store they’d stop and tell them to get moving,” another woman says. 

We spoke with Jessica Bundy in late July. 

Jessica Bundy. Photo Acadia University

Were you surprised by what the people you interviewed told you about their encounters with police and racism in rural Nova Scotia in general?

I would like to say I was shocked, and part of me was. But also, based on my own experience of the world we live in, it was not necessarily surprising. Disappointing, yes, but surprising, no.

The awareness and understanding that residents had about the deep-seated racism is very clear, and this was the case among everybody I spoke with. Multiple participants referred to Nova Scotia as the Mississippi of the North. It feels as though a lot of the racism, sexism, classism, all these sorts of things that we think ended in modern times, that’s not the reality for Black people. 

The racism doesn’t necessarily manifest just in policing. People speak about how anti-Black racism was present in much of their daily lives, whether it be in their job applications, housing, where people are living in the area. One person told me, it’s not just the police, don’t look at the police as an island of racism within a larger non-racist community. 

How does the experience of racism compare between rural Nova Scotia and Halifax?

“There’s research that shows how in Black rural communities, as well as white rural communities, differences in socio-economic status are more pronounced, differences between people who are middle class and people who are less well off are more pronounced. 

There are issues with jobs. Oftentimes, it’s smaller retail stores or manufacturing, sometimes there aren’t as many job opportunities, salaries in rural areas tend to be lower, and also we find greater family responsibilities. 

This bleeds down at times into communities of colour where they’re further marginalized by their rurality in that they don’t have the same access to services that might be catering to communities of color. In greater Halifax there are many community centers, there’s a lot of programming. These groups and organizations are not as widely available in these rural spaces in Nova Scotia, which is not to say that there aren’t any organizations, it’s just sometimes they aren’t able to reach as far, because of the distance and because of how spaced out things are.

If there are incidents of racism in these rural communities, where do you go? And do people know about it? There’s a stronger sense of community, but also at the same time, we don’t always know what’s happening from one small community to the next. I grew up in the Valley, and something happening in Kentville might not be very well communicated to people in Cambridge. And that’s not too far away.  

There’s also a certain lack of anonymity, Black communities are only so large, and they are shrinking. For instance, in order to maintain anonymity, I couldn’t really give many descriptors about participants in my thesis. 

And in terms of making complaints, you know, I myself have experienced the same thing growing up in rural Nova Scotia. If I did have a concern, who do you go to? There’s a lack of anonymity and that’s a concern. What are the repercussions if I do come forward? Am I going to be facing social alienation from other families? It does connect back to the broader conversation and people are becoming more comfortable talking about things because  everybody’s becoming more aware of the fact that it happens and a little bit more accepting in part.

Can you talk about the role of storytelling in your research.

When we think about who has been telling the dominant story and who has been driving the narrative for years, it often is not inclusive of Black stories and of the Black community. So my methodology was to focus solely on the stories, the narratives and the perceptions of Black people in Digby. These are stories that every single Black person can tell you about. So in that way it’s not necessarily anecdotal. 

By including narratives and stories, you don’t just get to understand that it’s a Black people who are targeted and over-surveilled by the police. It’s somebody’s mother, somebody’s son, it’s not just a number. So community narrative and telling people’s stories are vital to truly understand the impact of what we’re discussing here. 

You can email Jessica Bundy at jt.bundy@mail.utoronto.ca

See also: In historic vote Town of Truro vows to get serious about repairing the damage of racism

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