by Margery Fee and Sneja Gunew
George Elliott Clarke, born in 1960 in Nova Scotia, is a poet, playwright and literary critic who also writes verse novels, operas and screenplays. He holds a PhD in English from Queens University, as well as several honorary degrees from other Canadian universities. He is currently the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. In 2002, he won the Governor General’s Award for poetry forExecution Poems (2001), and in 2006 he received the Order of Nova Scotia.
In the following interview, conducted on July 9, 2000, Clarke recounts foundational events and figures from his childhood and youth, including mentors such as activist Rocky Jones and artist and actor Walter Borden. Although as a child, Clarke says he did not have a strong identity as Black, he explains how his involvement in various Black youth organizations and demonstrations in response to the murder of Graham Cromwell helped him form a better understanding of race relations in Canada. After attending several official multiculturalism events organized by the government that took place in Nova Scotia in 1979, Clarke observed that the conferences were only focused on “celebrating ethnic difference, but not examining the question of racism.”
Between obtaining his BA in English Literature from the University of Waterloo and his MA from Dalhousie, he worked for the political organization, Black United Front, and was the editor of their newsletter, The Rap. After graduating from Dalhousie, Clarke was hired by Howard McCurdy, the NDP federal Member of Parliament for Windsor, and the only Black MP then in office, to campaign for him and against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Although the Progressive Conservative party won a majority that year, Clarke was successful in helping McCurdy keep his seat.
After obtaining his PhD, Clarke was hired as an assistant professor by Duke University in North Carolina. A few months after he began teaching, he shifted his focus to African Canadian literature, because he realized it was a “very unique African diasporic literature.”
Clarke talks about his trajectory as a writer, telling the story of an important early reading at the Black Cultural Centre in 1986, a few years after Clarke’s first book of poetry was published. The audience taught him the importance of the performative: “I knew at that moment I would never write anything else again that I could not read before my community.”
To read more about George Elliott Clarke, please visit http://www.athabascau.ca/writers/geclarke.html
This interview was conducted by Margery Fee and Sneja Gunew in September 2000 as part of a research project on public intellectuals in Canada and Australia supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Evgenia Todorova worked on annotations and final editing.
MF: Our main interest in this set of interviews is really talking about people’s intellectual formation—what are the experiences that you might point to as you grew up, or met people, or were educated or whatever—that make what you are doing now comprehensible.
MF: Give it a try.
GEC: We can try.
MF: Start with kindergarten.
GEC: Well, Alexa McDonough—I’ll start with her. She was my kindergarten teacher.
MF: No kidding?
GEC: I’m not kidding, in Halifax, where of course she’s from. But I don’t really remember her per se. My parents told me and I’ve met her since and she says, I remember you when you were a child, I was so small, four or five years old. I didn’t cry when my mother left me for the first time, everybody else did and maybe that’s a bad sign, but I was really interested in having that preschool experience and, I guess, because I was just like, ‘okay, Mom, see you later,’ and just dived right in.
MF: “When do I learn to read?”
GEC: Exactly. I was just, boom, let’s get started on things. So I really enjoyed that year I guess I was there and the other thing was at the very end, they did, what I now know is a kind of psychological, maybe not psychological but some kind of scholastic test, aptitude test or something like that, and I still vaguely remember that moment. I was given a blue dinky car, I guess everyone got one of these things, but it was one of those moments. I just thought this is fun being asked all these questions. And here we are doing another interview.
MF: I think that’s an amazing story.
GEC: Thirty-five years later, I drop her a line every now and then and of course she’s actually come to a couple of my plays—Whylah Falls when it was in Halifax the first time in ’97 and I think she came to Beatrice Chancylast summer.
MF: Well I hope she’s saying things like, “Yes, without me George would have been nothing.”
GEC: In fact I remember when she first ran for Parliament in the spring of 1979, the election that made Joe Clark Prime Minister, something he has never gotten over, but in any event, yes, she asked me to campaign for her and I did for one day.
MF: And what did you contribute?
GEC: Not much. I think she came third in that campaign, I’m pretty sure she did. But hey, see what she did without me, without my help. She ended up becoming leader of the party.
MF: Maybe she’d have done better if you hadn’t been there.
GEC: Exactly, she could have got into parliament just a little bit sooner! So anyway, yeah, kindergarten was, as I remember it, a lot of fun but I think really, the greatest formative influences on me when I was a boy were my parents—my mother and my father. My mother was trained as a teacher and she was from a Black community called Windsor Plains, or actually to be more precise, Three Mile Plains, and she went to a teacher’s college as her younger brother did later on. She was the oldest in her family and so she had that background in education; and my father, he had only gotten as far as grade 10, because his family was very poor and so he left to help support his brothers and sisters. Yet he was very much an autodidact, self taught and interested in art because he had been a sign painter’s assistant. So because of that, he got really interested in art, but he only had one class of formal art education at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, but he did a lot of reading and studying and painting. Some of my strongest memories of him as a boy are the fact that he would sit there at the table, converted temporarily into some kind of easel, so to speak, and he would be painting. And he had a really original style. He would oil paint on glass and then behind the glass he would put tin foil, so it would kind of shimmer. I guess this was a kind of folk art strategy. I’ve never seen it anywhere else. I am sure that it was something that was pretty common, probably in the late ’50s, early ’60s, but it was a really, really wonderful art for me. I loved seeing it. I loved seeing him doing that kind of work. And then because of those interests, and because of the fact he had also been a paper boy for the Halifax Herald, he collected all the papers around World War Two, which he still has. And then because of that interest in history and politics, we were always listening to CBC in our home. And as a boy I did find it boring I have to say, I have to confess that, I found it boring. But we had no choice.
MF: But it went in.
GEC: Oh yes, it was there. It’s six o’clock, six p.m. it’s time to listen to the “World at Six”. Same thing in the morning and for television, the same thing. Our household was not one that was really into watching hockey games, although we would do that when there were the Stanley Cup playoffs happening or something, of that sort, but more into presidential nominations, or speeches by the prime minister, or the Ed Sullivan show. If the Beatles were on, we were made to watch. It was like, you have to watch this! We were forced to watch; it’s history. You have to watch this.
MF: Oh okay. That’s good.
GEC: So yeah, it was kind of fun. When I look back on it, I’m glad I had those experiences. And as a result of all that, and also because he really insisted on having Time and Life magazines, we had subscriptions to those two magazines, and of course the daily newspaper, and so I was always aware as a kid growing up, I was aware of everything going on in the larger world around me. I mean when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I was three and I remember it because it was being talked about in my home, and of course the other assassinations later on, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, it was all stuff that we were watching and listening to and concentrating on, and everything else that happened in the ‘60s. So I always feel that I should have been born ten years sooner. Or even fifteen years sooner.
MF: I was in grade ten when Kennedy was shot, but I probably wasn’t paying as much attention as you were.
GEC: It was a really media-saturated childhood. And that was really strange. I remember when the October Crisis was happening, I remember that very well because I was home sick from school the day that the exchange was made between the FLQ and the Canadian Government in terms of exchanging James Cross for the—
MF: Oh, so they could go off to Havana—
GEC: Yeah, to Cuba. I remember that day very well because I was watching it on, we had two channels then basically CTV and CBC. CBC was giving it, of course, saturation coverage, round the clock coverage. So I remember very clearly flipping back and forth those two channels between watching the helicopters coming to the Canadian pavilion, to pick up the guys, the FLQ members and James Cross for that matter, and in switching back to Sesame Street which was just getting started.
GEC: It was a bit like puppets on one hand, and on the other hand, guys who were sort of looking puppet-like in front of helicopters, or below helicopters. So, yes in our household we had all this stuff going on, then my father started off as a baggage handler for CN, which is now VIA, so that’s what he used to do and in the ‘60s, he kept that job or another job with the railway, but then he also became a social worker in North End Halifax where we were living, which has always been the working class district, the immigrant district and also the district where people with problems got warehoused, basically. And so he became a social worker, so then we had lots of people coming around the house who were kind of like his personal rehabilitation projects, if I can say that. So here’s a guy who’s an alcoholic, and I’m going to try and reform him, so, of course, you bring him to the house, and you know, we’d have to try and influence him to stop drinking as much, and this guy would maybe do some carpentry work for us, so long as he was staying dry, so to speak. I don’t think many of these projects worked out, but it was great though because, you know, this is like, even when I am going to school with great multiplicity of peoples, characters and cultures. It was still interesting to have a close up look at these adults who had problems, coming to our house and just getting into conversations with them and so on. That was one thing and then of course we had Marxist-Leninists who would drop in and out and of course—
MF: What do you mean “of course”?
GEC: Because they were involved in these projects, these reform movements, and so on. Right, and of course they had a bit more of a radical trajectory, but nevertheless, my father was not into that, but at the same time he was interested in having the conversations with them. So they would drop in, they would have supper with us and that kind of thing. And then of course I guess in terms of my mother, my mother got active, she stayed at home to raise us, but then in the later ‘60s she went to work and in fact started one of the first major daycares in Halifax, which is still running, called the Children’s Development Centre. That was her creation. I guess the other major influence, sort of major, was the church, because both my parents in fact met in the church, that is to say, the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia. I can’t say we had a household that was really religious. Now we would say grace, that was the extent of it, but we were also forced, my two brothers and I, we were forced to go to Sunday school.
MF: You had to read the Bible—
GEC: Well I didn’t. I didn’t have to, but I voluntarily decided to read it. I ended up reading it three times completely through. The last time was when I was about twenty-one, I guess. And I started when I was about thirteen, I read it completely through. And, yes, so just being there in that church, the Black community, the Black church, the music, the singing, spirituals, all that was all so very interesting and gave me, I think, a kind of oppositional attitude towards a lot of things going on in the society. Even though the church itself was not very political per se, it certainly wasn’t even as political as Martin Luther King’s movement was in the South, because it wasn’t the South; it was Nova Scotia, it was the ‘60s. And the community there is very small even though to some extent, very closely linked because most of us are descended from the same group of people, or the same groups of people from 200 years ago, so that makes us a community but at the same time still a very small community and for the most part, relatively isolated. So there wasn’t a real strong . . . I mean there were a few people who were trying to do some more radical politics within the Black community. I’m thinking of people like Rocky Jones who was very, very influential in the Black community in the ‘60s and even now, even today, is still influential, but especially back then because he was very interested in trying to import a Martin Luther King/Malcolm X/Black Panther Party model of social change to the Black community in Nova Scotia. And of course that didn’t go over all that well because the community was still fairly conservative and especially amongst older Black people, but at the same time, the younger Black people were very interested in what Rocky was saying and trying to do. And so he did get some initiatives going. He helped to organize what became the Black United Front of Nova Scotia, which lasted until 1996, so we had a good twenty-eight year run at least, or slightly more than that, as the pre-eminent Black secular organization in the province. That was basically his idea, although more conservative elements took it over, which always happens, and they remained in place for the next twenty-eight years or so, until finally provincial funding ended. He was also instrumental in getting the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission started, which came about in 1970 as well. That was also Rocky’s doing, more or less; an extremely important person in terms of contemporary Black Canadian politics. He got that one going. He then went to Dalhousie where he took an MA in history and got started the transition year program at Dalhousie. It was primarily targeting Black and Micmac youth. And then, what else did he do? I mean he was just involved in everything. But then when I was older, eighteen or nineteen, I started trying to do my own very limited organizing of Black youth in Nova Scotia, Rocky, again was one of those people who was very in my corner giving me advice and support and so on. And then a friend of his, Walter Borden, who is an actor, and in fact I have had the pleasure of seeing Walter act in my play Whylah Falls. Basically from the ages of seventeen to nineteen, my greatest mentor, my most important mentor, was Walter Borden. We met because I was an actor in Christmas 1976, a little production called Puss in Boots, a little Christmas show organized by David Renton,  who ended up doing some stuff at Stratford but was very important at Neptune Theatre in Halifax. Walter was the star of the show, he played Puss and I played Cedric, servant to the king. Anyway, there we were.
MF: Not being a major character.
GEC: Not being a major character, I just got to run around the stage, holding the King’s cape all the time and swinging back and forth as he moved, I ran in the opposite direction kind of thing. There I was sixteen going on seventeen and I was an actor, grease paint, the whole thing. But Walter was a really professional actor, and then in the spring of 1977, he won a prize for his poetry in a provincial writing competition in Nova Scotia. He had his picture in the paper, velvet smoking jacket and all that and so, then I said, hey, I’ve got to get to know this guy because he is a writer as well as an actor. So then we started chumming around, hanging out, and having lots and lots and lots of discussions about everything political and literary that you could imagine.
He of course had acted in New York, that is where he got his start and he was a really important role model and a really important mentor because he had really sacrificed to become an artist and actor. He had been trained as a school teacher, which was a pretty good job, especially in the early ’60s for a Black man to have, or a Black woman to have, for that matter. And he had his teacher’s certificate; he was teaching in Black schools, or mainly Black schools in Preston, just outside Halifax, and then he just threw it all away and got on a bus, I imagine, or a train, maybe the plane, and went to New York City. You know, I mean I look back at that and think WOW, what a gutsy thing to do ’cause he knew he wanted to act and he also knew that he couldn’t hang around Halifax and do that. The doors were not going to open fast enough, perhaps, I should put it that way, even though one of the things I should have mentioned quickly—I am jumping all over the place here—is that my father also acted in one little role at the Neptune Theatre, he played a policeman who had one line and it was the very last line of the play. It was “Everybody off stage, or everybody out”. That was it. But still—
MF: Dramatic moment.
GEC: So. Okay, that was kind of wordy, but what Walt did was amazing—looking back at that now—because he didn’t have any models in front of him. I mean there was Portia White, my late great auntie was a contralto, professional, classical singer, who had sung in New York. She had two performances at the Town Hall and got rave reviews in the New York Times, everywhere, so she was a very important Black Nova Scotian artist, maybe the first to really get any kind of acclaim or profile outside the province. She ended up singing before Queen Elizabeth in 1964 in Charlottetown, command performance, so she was again a very important symbol for me, and she has become even more important now since she died in ’68. But, for Walter, she would have been the only person out there really for him to have even thought of in connection with being an artist. But okay, he goes to New York, and joins the Circle in the Square Theatre, he was there for 3 years doing off Broadway shows, ’64-’67. Then he did another gutsy thing, he came back to Halifax. He could have stayed in New York, who knows what would have happened, whether he would have become a really big star, down there, either on stage or film, or what have you, but the possibilities would have been far greater if he had stayed in New York. But no, he decided that he really wanted to come back home to Nova Scotia—I should also mention in terms of Rocky, he had a similar trajectory. Rocky wanted to get out of the province, he was from Truro, small Black community in Truro, which is about 100 kilometers from Halifax, and he had had enough when he was a young man. He just had enough of racism and the feeling of just being oppressed in the province. So he got out, joined the Canadian army and then somehow ended up in the US, I am not sure about that part of it. But he somehow ended up in the US working with Martin Luther King in the south, in Mississippi. Organizing people.
So he did the same thing as Walter, he went back, he went back in 1966. Of course he gets back to Nova Scotia and he feels like its 1956, instead of 1966, and especially in terms of race relations, so then he believes the only thing he can really do to move people ahead is to basically shake things up and threaten basically, armed insurrection in the streets, as a way of getting white Nova Scotians to pay attention to the demands for change that Blacks were beginning to articulate. So, he worked with Walter actually, helped set up a little group called Kwacha House, which I was never involved in, even though it was just around the street where I was growing up. I was just too young for that. I would have been about six, seven when he got Kwacha House going, but in any event they did that. The National Film Board made a film about those activities. You will see a very young Walter Borden there getting up and making some grand declamation at the end, towards the end of the film.
MF: You don’t toddle past in the background?
GEC: No. No, no. I think probably my parents were conservative enough back then. They probably said, “No we can’t help them… no, no way we’re going to drop them off there!” But it was really for teenagers anyway. I never really caught up with those guys until ten years later. That’s when I really started getting involved with Rocky and Walter. In fact it was Rocky who suggested that I go to the University of Waterloo, which was a really bizarre choice, because there I am a kid in Halifax, I graduated in 1978 from high school, I was not really certain I wanted to go to university, not really certain at all. Because I was still thinking in the ‘60s mode about universities being there to control people-and not wanting to be part of the system. So, you know, I had just got out of high school. I was working as a tutor and counselor with Rocky’s wife who is from Windsor, Ontario, Joan Jones, who is also an extremely important community organizer. She really did not like the idea of me doing this “hippy dippy thing” and—”hippy dippy” was her phrase—and not going to university. She said, “You’ve got to go,” but I still was sort of uncertain, but then Rocky came along and said “look.” I was really interested in Black history so I asked him where I could go to study Black history. And he said the University of Waterloo—my friend James Walker teaches there and he is the expert on Black Canadian history. So I wrote to Walker, who said, “Don’t come here.” He said, “Go to Dalhousie, do a History BA, and then come to Waterloo to do an MA with me.”
MF: Oh okay.
GEC: But at the same time, I guess he must have notified Waterloo that I was interested, because then their recruitment office sent me a whole slew of information including information on the co-op program. I should mention by this point in my life about ’78-’79, my parents were divorced, they had been divorced by that point four or five years, and there was no way that either of them was in a situation to give me any financial support, and I didn’t have any substantial savings. So the co-op program looked like a pretty good option for me in terms of being able to go, work part time and attend classes part time, and that way I wouldn’t have to take—and I was really scared of the idea of getting a student loan—I know back then it wasn’t that costly and it was really easy to default on it, but I was still really nervous about the whole idea of debt. So I thought, okay, this looks like the best option, so if I am going to go, I can go to Waterloo and I’ll still maybe take a course with Walker, an undergraduate course in history. But the darndest thing is, I ended up at Waterloo for that reason, for the co-op program. I got into the co-op program, but I never got a class with Walker, because every time he was offering a course, I was working in Toronto. And then when I was actually on campus, he decided after a couple of years of my being there, he wasn’t going to offer any more Black history courses because there was no undergraduate interest—just at the graduate level, that’s where he decided he would focus his energy. So, that was too bad. We correspond, we are friends, but never had I the pleasure of having a course with him. I ended up hanging around Waterloo for six years. Because of the co-op program, a four-year program actually becomes a five-year program, because you’re on work terms, so that made it five years instead of the four, and then the sixth year I spent there as the editor of my student newspaper, our student newspaper at Waterloo, back then Imprint. And I ended up becoming editor as my first job after graduating, so to speak.
But I’ve jumped all over the place, I want to come back to Walter and the fact that, again, I think it was bold, brave, daring and courageous what he did, to, first of all, leave a secure career in teaching, go to the States, to New York, a very tough city, get his three years acting experience, real experience, and then come back to Halifax. And, he has been very successful there. He’s been in more than sixty shows, he has won a number of awards. He took his one-man show Tightrope Time to Amsterdam to represent Canada at the World Multicultural Drama Festival back in 1985. It won all sorts of accolades. It’s still not really well known—
I just want to emphasize again that he was a major influence for me particularly because he was writing poetry as well. And I started writing poetry when I was thirteen and then I stopped. I just wrote for a couple of weeks, I remember that very well, in junior high school, grade 8, and the reason why was because I was a big fan of, it’s embarrassing to admit this now, I was a huge fan of Elton John. I’ve never said that before, never admitted it, but it’s true I was, as a teenager in Halifax.
My father liked Elton John, so I started listening to him, anyway. But I had studied trombone for two years, my father and my mother were also very keen on us doing music. My musical episodes were frustrated mainly by myself as I never applied myself to really master anything. The trombone, even though I did have some facility with, I just dropped it, I just gave it up. But I was still very interested in music, so the only thing I could do was write. That was the closest I could get to music was to write words and again I had this influence from Elton John, Bernie Taupin his lyricist. And I thought, okay, maybe this is what I have to do, is just write words for songs and so on. So I started when I was thirteen and then dropped it and then picked it up again when I was fifteen, the day I graduated from junior high school is the day I started writing songs, the same day. I don’t know why but I called them songs because that was how I could see them. I wrote four songs a day, every day for three years, I think, three or four years and then in order to become a better song writer, lyricist, I decided I had to study poetry. And so that’s why I started reading poets, poetry and started trying to write it in order to become a better song writer. That was the whole idea. Then of course, because of that, I graduated from Elton John, Bernie Taupin, to Bob Dylan. When I was seventeen, eighteen, nineteen that’s all I listened to. Rocky Jones had an old Bob Dylan album which I now own. I borrowed it and I still have it.
MF: He might find out—
GEC: He might find out. But you know, he had like The Funk Brothers, he had everything from the sixties. Walter was staying there, and Rocky and Joan had this huge house on Windsor Street in Halifax and one room was a library. I’d never been in a house like that before. I mean one room was a library. And anything involving Black people was there in the library. So I used to go up and just basically stay in the library. I’d say “hi” and be given some food and just go into the library. Everything, Soul on Ice, Autobiography of Malcolm X, anything at all that had to do especially with Black American culture was there in that little library, which to me was a huge world. So I used to hang out there and talk with Walter, because he lived there, for crying out loud, and Rocky also had in the same room this big record collection with all this stuff from the sixties. So I was like, okay, I’ll listen to this, let me try that and so on and so forth. So anyway, yes, I went through this big Bob Dylan phase. Actually I shouldn’t even call it a phase because I really admired his writing, admired his lyrics and I thought these are the kinds of lyrics I need to write, that are kind of politically aware, politically charged, that kind of thing. I got through high school because of Dylan’s music, more or less. But then also I have to add, I was listening to a lot of African American popular music of the time. This was very important because again the Black community in Nova Scotia, even in Halifax, where most of us lived is small and again kind of isolated. That was our dream when we were kids in Halifax, how are we going to hear Black music, how are we going to hear the latest stuff. You couldn’t. You only heard it because people who traveled brought it back. So it was a kind of underground scene. One of the things I used to do when I was a teenager in high school was record stuff that we managed to get hold of. You would never hear it on any radio station in Halifax. Like—Parliament-Funkadelic, of course you would hear the Ohio Players but then we would have Kool & the Gang,records that had never never gotten air radio play anywhere on the east coast. We would get hold of these records and we would record them and take them to high school, take them to class and play them very quietly in a back corner somewhere just so we could have the funk happening around us. And then of course in the hallways, the corridors, you could really crank it up. But that was important psychological support for being a minority in the school system back then. That’s something I should mention as well. As a kid I didn’t really have a strong, in my own mind, I don’t think I had a really strong racial identify per se. I knew I was coloured, I knew I was Negro to use those words that we used back then and I could identify with Martin Luther King and I could identify with Malcolm X. I knew that I liked my church’s music and song and all of that, but I can’t say that I had a really strong racial identity. First of all, the schools I attended in North End Halifax again were working class, we were all mixed, we were all mixed up together—kids from all kinds of backgrounds and we were friends with each other, we were inside each other’s houses, running in and out. So, I just never really had a strong kind of sense of Black identity, until I went to Queen Elizabeth High School in Halifax. Then I was fifteen, I was there fifteen to eighteen and I remember the day the key incident for me [was] when I was seventeen sitting in Grade 11 English class, honours English, in QEH. It was a snowy day, it was actually February 21, 1977. I know the date for very good reason as I will mention, because of the fact that that day, I was reading a book called Notes of a Processed Brother. A book written by a guy who at the time he wrote it was a teenager himself, eighteen or nineteen. He had been trying to organize Black students in New York. I forget his name I just remember the cover, I remember his photograph, I remember the little blurb about him which said Muhammad Ali was now his big hero after Malcolm X. Malcolm X had been his first big hero and now it was Muhammad Ali and I thought that was interesting. It was a sixties book, and here I am reading it seven years late, probably. But anyway, I was reading it in English class. I should have been reading something else, who knows what, but I was reading this surreptitiously and I had it slipped inside something or sort of just scrunched down in my desk reading it. This guy, the writer, mentioned something about Malcolm X being assassinated on February 21, 1965, and I thought about that and I realized that the date was February 21. And I thought wow, why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t I realize that? I think I had always known it was in the winter time, but I didn’t know the exact date and it bothered me that I didn’t know that. So, this, I don’t mean to sound melodramatic or even stupid or silly, but I will confess I cried, sitting there in that classroom, that I didn’t know what I felt I should have known. So from that point I just started to read as much as I could. But it was all mainly Black American stuff, because that was the stuff that was available. And it was after that that I really started to associate with Walter and Rocky and also students in the transition year program. Because Rocky was working in the program, a program he had helped to start. He was working there, so I got involved in trying to organize this youth group for Nova Scotia, called the Black Youth Organization and that organization was really a little group of people, a few high school students, myself, my brother, his girlfriend who was Rocky’s daughter, Tracey Jones, who now runs a library in Halifax. And all these students from around the province, mainly Black, some Micmacs as well, who were interested in what we were doing and got involved. We used to meet every Monday night. In fact, it was funny, we called the group The Central Planning Committee. CPC. And by this point the late George McCurdy was running the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and so we would go to George McCurdy, and say “Dr. McCurdy would you mind giving us a couple of vans or a few cars so we can go around the province and talk to Black youth?” He wouldn’t hesitate. He would call up his business officer and say, rent some vehicles for these young people, so they can get out and visit other young people around Nova Scotia, and of course we went. It was great, that’s how I really got to know the province. I can’t say we went every weekend, probably we made in the course of a year, maybe four or five of those trips. But each one was magical because we had to stay overnight and of course, one thing they weren’t doing was booking hotel rooms for us. They wouldn’t mind renting the cars but they were not going to be booking any hotel rooms or motels. So we basically just stayed at other people’s houses. So that gave all of us a real sense of Black Nova Scotia, because it was basically, it still is more or less a collection of little communities that have been around for a long time but, it’s like as I like to describe, it’s kind of an archipelago, you know, you travel from one community to one community from another community. Dotted around the province, 43 little communities. I think they probably, most of them, many of them, especially rural communities, have now really shrunk in size in terms of population. I think for most Black people now, as then, but especially now, life in Nova Scotia starts with the metropolitan area. But still, twenty-five years ago people were still in those little communities. So we would get to meet them and meet their community leaders, and have all kinds of discussions and people would all be very friendly and give us $5.00 or $10.00 for gas, feed us. We would organize dances, we organized three youth conferences in Halifax. At the same time we had people who were sort of hangers-on and somewhat supportive because remember, the whole Quebec referendum thing was about to happen. This is crucial, because Halifax became, I don’t know what was going on back then I think there was a lot of RCMP money floating around, but Halifax became, for those years of the election of the PartiQuébécois [in 1976] to the first referendum in 1980, became a hotbed of Marxist Leninist Trotskyist thought.
MF: Supported by the RCMP?
GEC: Probably. At least some of it must have been ’cause they had nice big newspapers and everything. But on the other hand I don’t want to push that whole conspiracy thing too far, because no matter who was supporting it, what was really crucial about that is that I made at least one very good friend who was a committed Marxist and who I had a lot of really good conversations with and who made me read Lenin and made me read Mao. She hated Trotsky. And the people who were imbibing that material and lightly educating me about that class perspective, they were very interesting people and very supportive in what we were trying to do, in terms of organizing Black youth. And there are people from that group who went on to do some very interesting things. David Woods, who is himself a poet and a painter, he organized the first Nova Scotia Black Arts show, just two years ago. A travelling exhibition which moved around Nova Scotia and also I think maybe moved to New Brunswick and was covered very well in places like the Globe and Mail and I think on CBC. But in any event, he came out of that group, The Central Planning Committee. He and I used to argue back and forth vociferously in those meetings. But he went on to do some very good things in the province. He also organized a group called the Cultural Awareness Youth Group, which was really a logical outgrowth of the Central Planning Committee and the Black Youth Organization. I don’t know if CAYG is still running, but again, David’s involvement in CAYG helped create a group of Black artists, young Black artists now, because of his own interest in art he was very interested in trying to get younger Black people in high school writing and painting and putting on plays and so on. But again he got his start in our little group. Other members of the group went on to be educators, social workers, lawyers, and there we were, just this little ragged bunch of people, you know, just running around the province and reading and almost beating each other’s brains out every Monday night, with stuff that we were just really trying to understand. And, but that was really an important moment and it turns out that writing. I guess, okay, after high school and I got involved with the Central Planning Committee and all that, oh yes, I’ve got to mention this, I was the Minister of Information, for the CPC, the Minister of Information. That was the job I got. And we were all Ministers of something, you know. It was interesting, it was marvelous. We had a chairperson, and all that like Maoism, it was great.
MF: So, Minister of Information.
GEC: Yes, Minister of Information. Yeah. That was great and we organized three conferences, we got press attention in the city, in Halifax and to a certain extent elsewhere in the province. We tried to build links with other organizations, not very successfully because they just weren’t interested, and I can understand why from a real political point of view. What was it going to benefit the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, for instance, if they had any connection with us, right? I mean that was just one of the groups, I shouldn’t mention them by name but that was just one of the groups that didn’t have anything to do with us.
MF: What about the Micmac?
GEC: I have to say the Micmac people, the ones we were involved with were very supportive. There was a lot of solidarity. For one thing, this is another point to bring up, but for one thing, even though it’s not a subject that people talk about very much, we are intertwined, not utterly, not completely but I know in my own family, yes definitely. My grandfather was part Micmac, I mean I don’t think he raised his children with the Micmac identity and I certainly wasn’t either, but there are relatives of mine who you can see very clearly just from looking at them, hey, there’s Indian there. And that is another subject which I am very fascinated by, the fact that the Black Native, the Black Aboriginal African/Aboriginal connection in Canada, at least on the east coast, has never really been explored. They’re only just starting to explore those connections in the US now, or have been over the last decade, so we have had no real exploration of those connections on the east coast and it is interesting because, just from, no one in my family is interested in, for instance, in going and getting our Status and so on and so forth, but it’s a real possibility. You know, it is a serious possibility. I know of at least one other, as I would say, Africadian, a Black Nova Scotian gentleman who is a writer, in fact Peter A. B. Bailey, or Peter Bliss Bailey, who now lives in Montreal. Peter now identifies himself as a Micmac. But he started off as a Black writer. I remember that when we were trying to get things going with multiculturalism, official multiculturalism in Halifax, some of us Black youth had the sense that they were part of the problem and not part of the solution. Because they were interested in identifying with a kind of ethnic, celebrating ethnic difference, but not examining the question of racism. Not at all. That was too disruptive too, it would get into questions of class, privilege, etc. etc. and the people we were associating with who were part of that movement back then did not want any part of that. What they wanted us to do was come and sing our spirituals, but don’t talk about racism, don’t talk about employment equity and don’t talk about anything that is going to upset other people who are part of this “coalition.” So that’s where we found—there was one experience we had with a youth multiculturalism conference, I will never forget it, because we went there, okay, we were all sort of budding Marxists at this point, so we went there trying to get some issues on the table and we got shot down, we got shot down so much that we spent the rest of that conference deliberately singing spirituals. ‘Cause we felt oppressed.
MF: Oh no.
GEC: Exactly. I remember that very well, we just felt so, shut out of this whole discussion—this was 1979 to 1990. We also felt there was an attempt by the Liberal party, who were of course in power at that point federally, to just use us for votes because everybody knew an election was coming in ’79, five years into Trudeau’s third mandate. So we all knew, hey, the election’s coming and that’s why we are having all these multicultural festivals, etc. etc. I got flown to Ottawa a couple of times to take part in these multicultural gatherings, and it was clear it was not serious, it was just about Liberal wallpaper. We were going to be wallpaper for the Liberal party, for election platforms, that was it. In fact, the Native position was really sensible because theirs was: we have nothing to do with multiculturalism. You know, we’re here to make that point—you want nothing to do with it—we have nothing to do with it. This is the settlers talking about how to divide up the party. But there were some people in the multiculturalism movement back then who were pretty good, Dr. Pachai, who is himself an expert in Black history, Bridglal Pachai, we all called him Bridge. He had an interesting history, he’s published a book about his life called My Africa, My Canada, and Bridge Pachai was professor of, I think, International Development at St. Mary’s University. He hired me in the summer of 1978 to be a multiculturalism outreach worker, one of those Liberal projects. So, it was fine, but he was really serious, very scholarly, he put together a conference on Black American history, produced a volume of papers from that conference. Rocky took part in it as well. That was something else that was going on at the same time we were trying to organize the Black youth organization. I’ve been rambling but I feel that—
MF: No, no, this is all salient.
GEC: At this time in my life we had the whole Black youth organizational thrust, the multiculturalism thing that was coming about, and then this sort of flirtation with Marxism, all happening at the same time and as a result of that, not only did I get to travel around Nova Scotia, I got to go to Toronto, to Winnipeg, to Montreal. I remember those trips really well because they all happened about two weeks apart and by every mode of transportation imaginable—plane, train, bus and car. I went to Montreal for a Marxist conference which I remember very well it was “En Lutte, In Struggle” —the strugglers we liked to call them. The strugglers had come to Halifax—I mean I am jumping all over the place here, but back to ’78 again, I think there was Mountie money under the table. In any event, we had about three or four serious diehard Marxist groups active in Halifax—different types and of course all hating each other’s guts, right, because that factionalism was very important, but in any event, they were all there and I floated around not giving my support to any one particular group too much—just floating around and trying to get support from all of them and they were supportive because they wanted to co-opt us probably, right?
MF: No doubt.
GEC: Absolutely. But it was interesting, because I did get to, when I made a car trip to Montreal for En Lutte’s general gathering, and all of these groups were actually from Quebec, all of them were because of the referendum, for crying out loud, I mean this is an interesting moment because everybody knew there’s going to be this referendum and the federal government was doing everything it could, especially when Trudeau came back, or even before he was defeated in ’79, they were doing everything they could to prepare the way for the federalist victory. And without any evidence at all, I think that meant, trying to tie up people on the left as much as possible and so all of the extremists, or people who might be considered extremists, were all fighting each other about should Quebec separate or not, what kind of leader, is it a bourgeois thing, is it really populist, blah blah blah. People were involved in all these kinds of debates, in Halifax, right, so it was interesting because you had any Haligonian who might have wanted to go there and show solidarity with the Québécois and bring about the separation of Quebec were fighting these other Marxists in Halifax. That is why I think the whole thing was just a put-up because after the referendum happened all those groups, within a couple years of 1980, basically shriveled up and disappeared. They just, poof! Gone, history. And that just makes me think that oh, that’s a very interesting coincidence. Maybe it was because they felt okay, there is nothing more to fight about because there won’t be another referendum. But that doesn’t make sense if you are a real Marxist group, why disappear after the referendum is over, you know there is still a revolution to be waged. In any event while they were around, all four of them combating and fighting, it was exciting to sort of be a fellow traveler with four different groups and go to Montreal that one time, that was fun. I wrote a poem on that trip on the way back, which is still one of my personal favorites. It confirmed to me that I was a poet. And the same thing for another trip out to Winnipeg, I met Sam Selvon because they put on this Black writer’s collective meeting in Winnipeg in March ’79 and Sylvia Hamilton was supposed to go, the filmmaker, who was also my baby sitter—I forgot to mention that—Sylvia Hamilton was my babysitter, but in any event, I don’t remember her baby-sitting me but she told me that—I met her when I was 18 as well—it was funny—you know, I’ve got to know her as an older person when I was 18, she was known as the Black hippie, kind of thing in North End Halifax, because she was still wearing the long skirts and you know she was just really, funky, down-to-earth. And I should have mentioned her sooner because she was also, along with Rocky and Walter, she was also extremely influential for me when I was 18, 19 because many of those weekends when I was living in Halifax, many weekends during that year, ’78-’79, I’d go up to her house which she shared with her then-partner, now-husband Bev Greenlaw, and we would sit up half the night. Because they had already been through all this stuff, Sylvia was born ten years ahead of me. She was born in 1950. She went through the sixties, I’d go there saying, yeah, but Malcolm was right, and she would say like well, you know, okay, but, da da dadada. Again, there I was, being educated. The other important thing about Sylvia was she was out front non-conformist, absolutely, that’s why people called her a hippie, because she was non-conformist, utterly. She was a feminist, probably just a little bit socialist. I think she was, though she never really made that a big part of where she was coming from. She had respect for it, but she wouldn’t really, she was not into that. That’s not the right way to put it, what am I trying to say? She was definitely into popular organization, there wasn’t anything going on in the community that Sylvia was not involved with, so she supported us in the Central Planning Committee, she supported any community endeavor to do anything at all that was progressive. Anything at all. Her ideological stance was we’ve got to make things better and I’ll do whatever is necessary to make things better. Because of the fact that she had already been through all that, she’d already gone through all that, so it was like when I would talk to her about the En Lutte people, the Strugglers, she would say, oh yeah, the Strugglers.
MF: And look patient?
GEC: Yes, and look very patient. It’s like, yeah, okay. But the other thing is like, I mentioned Rocky’s library? She had a library and she also had a house again with Bev on Maynard Street that at first they just had the top part, then they had the whole house and then it was like, George, any time you want to come and stay, please do. They would put on all kinds of rice and peas, tea, I remember one Christmas she gave me a big can of Earl Grey tea, because I had brought them a funk record. I think it was a Gil Scott-Heron record. She said, oh okay, thank you very much, now here you have some, take this. In fact I think she gave me a can of English Breakfast Tea and a can of Earl Grey tea. That’s how I got to know Earl Grey tea. The thing about Sylvia was that she was already in the world, she did her BA at Acadia University. She was working as a reporter, a journalist, and really trying hard. And it was hard, for a Black woman to be doing that, to be a journalist in Halifax. So you see, Sylvia was connected to Walter, to Joan, to the women’s movement, to the environmental movement, I mean everything that was progressive that was going on in the city, she was part of it, she was there with her husband as well. And, so when I would go to their place again we would just have these tremendous conversations that would last until three o’clock in the morning and they would be very patient listening to me go on and go on and then they’d say, hey, don’t bother walking up to your house—even though it was only two blocks away—but it would be like three o’clock in the morning—they’d say just sleep here, just sleep here. Pull out the futon, stay here, here you go. And I’d get up in the morning and we’d do some more conversation and lots more discussion about poetry, music and art, what was going on in the world, just general stuff back then. So again, it’s really funny now I see Sylvia the filmmaker, all kinds of films and sometimes we’re in the same kind of venues, and I’ll get up and say, it’s my pleasure to introduce Sylvia Hamilton who used to babysit me. Embarrassing her all the time, all the time.
MF: That’s the role of the babysat.
GEC: That’s it, yeah. So, that was funny. So anyway. We had, it was a really interesting little group of people in Halifax back then. One of the things they all shared in common—Rocky, Walter, Sylvia, Joan, and myself and David Woods—we all worked for the Black United Front, and we all had to leave. I think Rocky got fired, Sylvia quit, Walter got fired, I was there when Walter got fired, I mean I wasn’t working for them but I was hanging around, and oh yeah, David Woods got fired—our problem was, we kept wanting, but it was provincially funded, it was federally funded. In fact it was set up in part deliberately by Trudeau, he deliberately set it up, this is a fact, proven by Cabinet documents, he deliberately set it up, because he didn’t want to see a Black Panther movement in Halifax or Nova Scotia. So he said okay, let’s give these folk a hundred thousand dollars and tell them to do community development and we’ll let the RCMP spy on them too at the same time. Which is what they did and this became public knowledge back in ‘95. We used to joke all the time about hearing clicks on Rocky’s phone because he was the one, the RCMP had him under surveillance for I don’t know how long, how many years. Then it all came out in the House of Commons in 1995. And finally became public. But everybody knew, make a phone call from Rocky and Joan’s and you know you are going to be in somebody’s file forever. But anyway, yes, they all worked for the Black United Front at one point and all moved on because the Black United Front was a very conservative organization, because it was government funded. They did some very good things, but they were very much controlled by that government dollar which made perfect sense, why would the government really be funding a group to embarrass them all the time. So anybody who wanted to do anything in the community, we all ended up working for BUF—we all did—and we all left or got fired. I am sorry the organization is gone, because I think it was a very important organization. It was a training school, we all got trained there.
MF: Learning how to get fired.
GEC: Oh, geez. One other thing, I shouldn’t mention this, but I’m going to mention it anyway.
SG: We can always cut it later.
GEC: I don’t think I’ll get in any trouble for it now. When I was involved, oh god, this is really, this is an amazing thing. Okay. I did my year as editor, I came back to Halifax, this was ’85-’86 actually it was 1985, I came back to Halifax and I had my honours BA in English and I couldn’t get a job.
MF: Funny thing!
GEC: Yeah, funny thing. Couldn’t get a job and I ended up doing all kinds of menial things, in fact I went from being a newspaper editor and Imprint had, we had printed 15,000 copies weekly, right, and it was a fairly good-sized little newspaper, and so I went from doing that to, one of the jobs I got when I came back from Halifax was stuffing inserts in the Chronicle Herald and Mail-Star newspaper, twice a week, minimum wage, eight hours a night from ten p.m. until 6.a.m. It was the strangest shift, the strangest hours. But I did that and I did it, happily. And I was wondering, there was other people of course, there was one guy who had been there for thirty years, right, those hours, stuffing the advertising supplements in the papers. It was assembly line work. I’d never done that kind of work before, even though it was very unskilled labour. But I got a lot of respect for those older guys who were there like, sshp, shhp, shhp … I was like, “Get the paper inside…” (in anguished tones). Anyway, it was amazing. Then I got a job painting the decks of a Canadian navy ship and that was grueling and also unskilled labour. You don’t even have to know how to use a paint brush, it was just slap it on, you know. But I was happy to have both jobs because I had a good friend who just said, hey, you can use this apartment, no problem. So I didn’t have to worry about a place to live and I just managed to survive and then all of a sudden, I got two job offers on the same day, one to work as a newspaper reporter with the Daily News of Halifax and the other one was to work for the Black United Front. Now the problem was this: the Daily News gave me one week to get a car because you had to be able to have a car and I asked, begged, “Do I really have to have a car?” and the editor was Lyndon Watkins, who started Frank magazine, he hired me off the street, I just walked in, he asked me a few questions and said, okay, you’re hired. And he said, I’ll give you one week to find a car. Then I had my interview with the Black United Front and they offered me a job back in my old home territory where in fact I was born, the Annapolis Valley, though I didn’t grow up there, I grew up in Halifax, But I always loved the Annapolis Valley, so I was like, “Oh, wow, this is good” and BUF gave me two weeks to find a car. Now the real truth of the matter is this, I didn’t even have a driver’s license, let alone a car. I didn’t even have a driver’s license, so I had to go to work. I went to Windsor, Nova Scotia, Hantsport actually, where I have an uncle, Uncle Sock, and he taught me how to drive in two weeks, taught me how to drive and I had a cousin who sold me her car for three hundred dollars. And it wasn’t much of a car!
MF: They wanted you to get a job.
GEC: And it wasn’t much of a car. Yeah, they wanted me to get a job. Although it was extremely nice of her ’cause even though the car was totally rusted out, it was just a real bucket of bolts, it was ready to fall apart and it did constantly, consistently every single time. But it was still really good of her to sell me her car, the only car she had. And, so I started working for BUF. Now back in those days the law was, I had my beginner’s license, of course, I’d gotten that, but then you had to have somebody with a license to drive with you legally, so luckily I had another cousin who was unemployed, so I was able to pay him $50.00 of my $150.00 a week salary to drive with me. So in fact, my boss said BUF was always wondering, why is that guy always with you every time you go somewhere? And I just made up a story, blah blah, he’s my cousin, he’s out of work, and all that. So we were booming up and down the Annapolis Valley, all the time, and luckily we had plenty of places, people who were willing to billet us, so that’s what we did.
So, I ended up working for BUF, into ’86. Oh yes, I almost forgot. I got involved with a murder case, involving a gentleman by the name of Graham Cromwell, who I had met back in 1978 and then again in ’79, and Graham was shot and killed in June ’85, just after I had gotten back to Nova Scotia and I knew his family and I knew him. And then I started hearing rumours from people down in his neck of the woods, a place called Weymouth Falls, a Black community which goes back to Loyalist times, and about how they felt that it was a murder and how they thought that the guy who did it who happened to be white was going to be exonerated, was going to be acquitted from the charge that he had which was manslaughter. And so it was really funny, I ended up getting this job with BUF in the fall of 1985 and one of the first things I did was drive to Weymouth Falls, and get involved with people there who were trying to get an appeal in the case. So we ended up forming a group called the Weymouth Falls Justice Committee and I worked with them, closely, I mean every weekend I was down there, and yes, we had demonstrations in Halifax. We got all the people who had been involved in the Central Planning Committee came out of woodwork again, Rocky, Sylvia, etc, and we got things going. We had demonstrations, some of the old Marxists who were still around who were real Marxists came out to give us support, David Woods was there. So we had three demonstrations in Halifax, they got a lot of media attention. We had a demonstration in Weymouth Falls and made it onto the National on CBC but we didn’t get our appeal, which was no surprise. We even got Anne Derrick, Anne Derrick represented us who later become a big constitutional lawyer in Halifax, won lots and lots of cases, very progressive lawyer, but she represented us for free, pro bono. The closest we got was to meet the Attorney General and the deceased fellow’s mother came to meet with the Attorney General, it was one of the things we wanted to see happen, and it did. That was Ron Giffin, the Attorney General of the day. We didn’t change anything except that we did make it an issue that the Black community is not happy, to put it mildly, about people always being shot, murdered, and the people who do it getting away with it. At the same time I was involved in that matter, which also I have to say led to the writing ofWhylah Falls.
MF: Yes, I was just going to say, wait a minute, I looked it up on a map and couldn’t find it—
GEC: Yes, Whylah Falls started in ’85, with me writing a series of poems about people I was meeting in Weymouth Falls and about the fellow Graham and he later became the model for my Othello and his family and other people in the community. But then in all those other little Black communities I was doing social work in all up and down in the Annapolis Valley I was hearing lots and lots of interesting stories. This was interesting for me because at Waterloo, I think I studied formally in class only two Black poets, in the entire four years I was there, because all the courses I had in English Literature, tended to be British Literature. I had one course in American lit, I had a couple in Canadian. There was one course that was a post-colonial course taught by Eric McCormick, which was very very good and he did have African and Caribbean writers on his syllabus. But no poets, so only two Black poets that I formally studied, and that was because I wanted to study them in my first-year English class at Waterloo. But in any event, and the darndest thing was that I had two courses that I ended up reading, one course in the summer of ’81, on the Cavalier Poets and Renaissance English poets (and not Shakespeare) and I loved it. I really loved it. I especially liked Paradise Lost which I also read three times, including twice that summer and not just because of the class, but because I liked it, really bizarre. Oh yes, because of the Paradise Lost experience, I ended up experimenting with iambic pentameter and I wrote lots and lots of really bad, dreadful iambic pentameter verse, awful. Just really unadulterated, really bad stuff. Three years’ worth of it and then I went home to Nova Scotia and ended up working in the Black community and started hearing stuff that didn’t sound to my ears all that different from the Renaissance poetry I had been reading. I guess the blank verse I had been writing started to take on this other vocabulary and this other style of speech that I was hearing from the Black people I was working with in the Annapolis Valley. I could start feeling that this is my voice and this is my heritage that I am finally beginning to address. But I know it wasn’t all that specific in my mind, it was just like, “Wow, these are really interesting voices that I hear.” Voices that I’d grown up with, but hadn’t really paid that kind of attention to before. So then, I was always walking around taking down what people were saying around me, just writing down anything that people said which I thought was interesting and trying to make poems based on the stories they were telling me and so on. So that was going on, and in the course of that year, ’85-’86, I also decided that I really needed to go and do my MA. So then I went to Dalhousie. So I ended up going there, starting in the fall of ’86 and I quit my job at the BUF. But they did ask me to stay on and become their newsletter editor, which was fine. So I said, great I’ll do that. And we started a little newsletter called The Rap. But while I was working on that between time I was studying at Dal and I had two courses that were particularly interesting. One course taught by Patricia Monk on Canadian poetry and we did a different Canadian poet every week and that was a three-hour class, very good class, and I just got to read a lot and that’s where I first read Michael Ondaatje and I just loved Billy the Kid and I decided I’d do my MA thesis on him and did. But the other course I took that I thought was really good was John Fraser’s course, “Tradition and Experimentation in Modern Poetry, 1880-1920.” What I liked about it as well, in his little description of the course, he had stated that “This course should be especially valuable for poets” and I thought, wow, that’s really interesting, a professor who is saying a poet should take this class. So I did. We met once a week Monday nights, Fraser’s house, with his artist wife Carol Hoorn Fraser, serving us coffee and cookies about half way through the three hour class. I was always consistently late and never getting there until 7.30 or so. It hasn’t changed. We started at seven, we were supposed to go till ten. But I have to say that was the most rewarding, the most stimulating, the most provocative, the most interesting class, I had ever had in all of my university years from undergraduate to Ph.D. It was the most fascinating. And the reason why was because for whatever reasons, even Fraser, he and I are good friends, even he says that that year was the best year he ever had. Now that was really strange. It was just the mix of personalities in the class. A few of us were poets, Laura McLaughlin published one book, she was in that class, Susanne Alexander who is attached to Goose Lane Editions now, was in that class. Oh yes, there was one person whose name I forget now, who started a publishing company called Buschek Books, new publishing company which has been around for a few years, publishing short fiction and poetry, but she came out of that class. So it was a really interesting little mix of people. And I also loved Fraser’s approach to things. He wouldn’t lecture, it was certainly a seminar class, the most seminarian class I’ve ever been in, because he really would not say much. Basically he would assign, we all had to choose a topic at the beginning of the year, beginning of each term we had to choose which topic we would work on. Yes, what we were responsible for was to produce one paper, hand it in with enough time to let the other members of the class read it and discuss it and give feedback on it and just come to class. So, I don’t know how it happened but I ended up drawing Baudelaire for the first term, fall ’86.
MF: Oh my!
GEC: Yeah, oh my, because Fraser insisted that I really had to deal with French metrics. And I mean like I’m scared, I’m not even any good at French. How am I supposed to do a French meter, right. But I worked my butt off on that paper. I did. I ended up writing it two nights straight staying up, pulling all nighters with a bottle of rum in the BUF office. I slept on the floor because I wanted to write a good paper. I had to write a good paper, because I knew there were only two papers in that class. I had to have a good paper. So I got out all the books and papers I could find on Baudelaire and I wrote a good paper. I dropped it off, I’ll never forget. I took a taxi over because the BUF office was in Dartmouth. I took a taxi over to Fraser’s house, Sunday morning, because it had to be there Sunday morning. I dropped it in an envelope at his front door, got back in the cab, went to the apartment I was living in at the time and went to bed. I think it was like 9.00 a.m. in the morning and I didn’t get up again until 7 p.m. It was just the craziest time and I was shaking when I went to his house the next night to get the—his evaluation was that if he liked it he would nod. Yes, nodding meant it was good. So he was consistently nodding, so I thought well, okay, glad I got through that, that was really good. But the other thing that was really nice about that class, was the fact that he just insisted that we had to talk. There had to be a lot of discussion in the first term. Despite the fact that I did a reasonable job on that Baudelaire essay, I was really scared, I was really shy because there were students in the class who were Ph.D. students. And I thought how can I, I don’t know anything about deconstruction, how can I say anything, you know. So I was completely silent. I would just sit there and listen. The next term, I had the bad luck of getting the topic of free verse for my paper, the term beginning in January. And, again, Fraser would not give directions about what you should be trying to do in the paper, the paper on free verse, and I freaked out. I couldn’t figure out how to write the paper, I did write something but I knew it wasn’t really good. I knew that. I knew that. And he nodded a couple of times that night the paper came in and my fellow students in the class, they were great, they said yeah, “good paper, nice job, blah, blah.” But I knew that it wasn’t, I knew that I had missed the thrust of the thing. I knew that I just hadn’t gotten a handle on it, so Fraser gave me back the paper a couple of days later and it was full of notes, basically suggesting that you didn’t do this, you didn’t do that, you missed this, you missed that. So I went to meet with him and said, I asked him “well, what do you really think of this.” He hadn’t put a grade on it. He asked me, “what do you think of it?” I said, “well it’s not a very good paper.” He said, “Um, yeah”… Then I was really scared because I had done one good paper and there was one that wasn’t so good and this was an important course for me, as a poet. So I thought, I’ve just got to do better so I said, “look can I do another paper for you?” He said, “No, just keep coming to class and we’ll see what happens at the end of the term.” Well, after that meeting I came to class every week prepared to do battle. Prepared to engage every single soul in that room, including Fraser himself, in the discussion on whatever poet or group of poems we were discussing that week. So I went from being shy and retiring and wallflower to engagé. I was in there like a dirty shirt every week, every week. And that class I will say it honestly, I dominated that class from that point on, there was no one able to win any arguments with me. And Fraser was sitting there, nodding vigorously, every week from that point on. And then I did write another paper, unofficially, but I wrote it out of the pressure of an argument I was having with one other student about Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the question was, “Is Hopkins really obscure or not?” And I took the tack that he really wasn’t. And decided in what turned out to be a fifteen-page paper, which was circulated around [to] the members of the class. And, I know Fraser liked it, I don’t know whether that influenced his final thinking on my grade, but I will say, that when I got that ‘A’ from him, I knew I had earned it and I felt very, very good about it, and I knew that it said I understood something about examining literature, and especially reading poetry. I felt really, really good about that and then later on when I was working on Whylah Falls, he was on sabbatical, in 1990, in Mexico, and I sent him the manuscript because I figure I really respected his point of view on things and I felt that if he liked it, then I had a good book. He sent me back the manuscript with some suggestions for changes, and it got lost in the mail.
MF: Oh no.
GEC: It never turned up. But he sent me as well a letter where he basically praised the manuscript. And I thought, okay, great, and ever since he remains a very thorough and tough critic of all of my creative work. One of the nicest things for me again was when he came to the opera performance—he’d seen the manuscript many, many times and had made many, many, many critical comments on it, which I tried to take into consideration at different points in writing it. Well, when he came to the opera last year in Dartmouth, he came up to me afterwards and said that he thought it was great. Now, that to me was extremely important, because this is somebody who is very sparing with those kinds of accolades, and very, very severe in his criticism. So again I am all over the place here, but back to ’85-’86 as I was getting into the MA program at Dal, I was also still somewhat associated with the BUF and what had happened—this was another thing, at the same time we’d been fighting for this acquittal with the Weymouth Falls Justice Committee—what had happened at the same time was that there was a very conservative leadership of the BUF, even more conservative than usual. What they had decided to do was, they had put a bill, this was incredible, they put a bill before the Nova Scotia Legislature to merge the BUF with the Black Cultural Centre which had just been founded, started in 1983. And, all of us who were progressive in the community hated the idea, because we knew what was really at stake here was the gutting of the Black United Front as any kind of effective political organization. It already wasn’t all that credible as a political organization, but we knew that if it was merged with the Black Cultural Centre, it would cease to have any kind of political import, and even worse, the bill that was put before the Nova Scotia Legislature was extremely anti-democratic. It was put forward by the Buchanan government and what the bill would have done is to merge these two organizations, but part of the bill also stipulated that all government monies coming into the Black community would be funneled through a new 15-person board of directors who would be responsible for deciding who would get what funds for any kind of community initiative. And we could imagine what that board was going to look like- a handful of lawyers, a few ministers, a very conservative board of directors, i.e. no more political activism in the Black Nova Scotian community was going to be funded. We knew that. And the people who were running the BUF knew that too. They also knew that the BUF leadership were responsible for getting this bill into the legislature and actually made it to second reading. What stopped it was an underground newsletter that a group of us had a hand in putting out.
GEC: More than one person thought it was the work of white people.
MF: Oooh good!
GEC: So, anyway, the result of all that was the leadership of BUF was forced to resign and people who we consider to be more progressive became the new leadership. And with that leadership change I was then asked to do the official newsletter for BUF, which became The Rap, and The Rap then evolved into a little community newspaper that came out once a month, was eight pages long, I was the editor and an advertising manager by the name of Mark Daye whose father was sergeant-at-arms at the Nova Scotia legislature, Buddy Daye, first Black sergeant-at-arms, and we managed to break a couple of stories in Halifax. I mean, big stories nobody else could get hold of because they were not inside the community—
SG: Okay, about The Rap?
GEC: The Rap. It was only a small paper, I think we were earning take home pay after all expenses and it was an independent thing, we were housed in the BUF office, which by this point had moved to downtown Halifax (Gottingen Street) with the new leadership. And, so we had free office space, free computer to use, but everything else was up to us, so we had to sell advertising and we would run, I think, 7,000 copies, but only once a month, eight pages, and we endeavored to cover all the news that we felt was important for the community. And that was actually defined pretty broadly. Yes, the focus was the Black community, and around the province, not just in Halifax, but the same time, we were also a paper out of North End Halifax. So there was some touching on general North End problems, issues, and so on. And certainly one of the stories we broke, did not just have an impact for the Black people in Halifax, but for anybody who was living in public housing. It was one of the big stories that we broke, that nobody else could get at, nobody else, I am happy with this, I mean I am sorry about the situation that we ended up breaking, and I had a headache, I was worried that I was going to get sued. But anyway to make the point, we ended up breaking a story that actually we didn’t do enough with, it was about how Halifax Housing Authority employees, public housing employees, were coercing young women into providing them with sexual favours for things like tape recorders and stuff like that. And this was a story the CBC, I found out later on, had been trying to get the story, they couldn’t get it confirmed and there was nothing they could do, and I stumbled on it by accident. I called up one of my sources and I just told her out of the blue, thinking about something else completely different, I didn’t know about this, I just said, “I know all about it.” She said, “How did you find out?” It was one of the stupidest things. I meant something completely, almost boring, pedestrian story I was thinking about, and she ended up telling me about this incident, because she was involved with public housing. And which should have been kept hush hush, the guys who had been involved would have been fired, no criminal charges though and so, I got a story from her. I never got a real confirmation from Halifax housing, but I got enough to actually put out a front-page story on it. So I scooped everybody, we scooped everybody in Halifax with the story, and I got another call from the Daily News to come work for them, come and be a reporter for them.
And so, but again it was one of these weird things, at the same time I got the call from the Daily News to go and work for them, I got a call from the office of Howard McCurdy MP, whose community or communications person had decided to resign to take another job within the federal NDP and he had told her apparently, I mean I got to know Howard later so this makes sense but, she took him literally when he said I want you to contact every newspaper in the country and find somebody to replace you. He hadn’t remembered me, specifically, I had first met him back in ’79 in Toronto. I got on the train and came up for the last meeting of the National Black Coalition of Canada. I just came spontaneously, just jumped on the train in Halifax and came up, because there was something going on and I wanted to be part of it. So that’s how I met Howard for the first time. But he wasn’t thinking of me, he just said to his assistant at that point, her name is Susan Seville, “Contact every paper,” and she did. Including mine. And so I’m sitting there and I can’t believe this, Howard McCurdy’s office is calling me, my little paper, I come out once a month. And she was saying, yeah well, you know Howard said he wanted me to call every paper in the country so you’re on the line. So I said, okay, what am I supposed to do. Okay, so this is what we need, cv, etc. So I sat down and wrote a letter and put a cv together and sent it off. Two days later I get a call from Howard and he interviewed me over the phone and said, how soon can you start? So I said, “Well, I’ve got to close my paper down and come down to Ottawa.” So he gave me a few weeks and I shut down the paper and moved to Ottawa. Actually I didn’t shut it down I gave it to Mark Daye who was my advertising manager and Charles Saunders, who, actually I also have to digress here and talk about Charles Saunders, because Charlie—I shouldn’t call him that he always goes by Charles—Charles is Black American and he came to Canada to escape the draft in 1970. He arrived just in time for the War Measures Act, I always liked that.
MF: He thought he was running away from oppression!
GEC: And he was also a writer, a sci-fi writer. I shouldn’t say was, he still is and he published three fantasy series novels with Daw out of New York, the Imaro series, an African fantasy superhero type guy, like, this almost sounds like an oxymoron, but kind of Black Tarzan figure, that is what he created. And he was well known in fantasy writer circles for that genre of work. And he also had a movie developed, a screen play, he had a radio play done and he had been living in Ottawa, it was funny. He and I switched places, it was weird. He had been living in Ottawa for 15 years, but then the sci-fi group, the people who do the Hugo Awards, they had a meeting in Halifax. Halifax had a real strong sci-fi community. Charles went down to Halifax for the first time, ’85. He got there, he met people in the Black community and he felt like he was at home because it reminded him of his boyhood in Philadelphia where it was, of course, a much larger Black community, but just the way people speak, the culture, the church and all that, reminded him of Black America. So, as another guy who does things on impulse, he came back to Ottawa, packed up his bags and moved to Halifax, lock, stock, and barrel and decided, “This is going to be my new home community.” And within a year of getting there he married a Black Nova Scotian woman, Dale Farmer, and started doing, was still doing some freelance writing, trying to make a go of it, got a few things done, the movie—which actually got made in Argentina with an all-white cast, but still, hey, it got made and he got paid. He tried to get a few other projects going, he did a book on Black Canadian boxers.
But in any event, it was really good, he and I would meet from time to time too because he was really, really into, writing as well once I got back there in ’85. In fact, I met Charles shortly after I moved back to Nova Scotia, I moved back to Halifax in ’85. This little Black newspaper was running then, the guy actually was my cousin, Percy Paris and the paper, I think it was called The Jet Journal. But he had this little paper going and he was really struggling with it and it wasn’t working out very well, so I went to see him to get a job. Of course he didn’t have a job to give me, but he was very supportive and he introduced me to Charles because Charles was sitting there trying to get a job. He had a little storefront office on Gottingen Street in Halifax and Percy was great because he gave me the key to his office and said, “Come in and use the typewriter any time you want to.” So it was like okay, I used to go in there many late nights and do some typing. That’s where I first met Charles. And so then Charles took over The Rap, when I left in 1987 and he ran it with Mark Daye, for about 8 or 9 more months, 5 or 6 more issues and then it just collapsed or they closed it down, I don’t know what for sure, but Charles has been since 1989 a columnist with the Halifax Daily News, the paper that tried to hire me, ended up basically hiring Charles as a columnist, but that is based partly on the work he did with The Rap. And so, this is real nice, he still does it, he’s a great columnist, every couple of months, he sends me a whack of his news columns and that keeps me up to date with what is going on in Nova Scotia. So I ended up going to Ottawa Thanksgiving Day 1987 and really worked hard, it was wonderful working for Howard. He was very demanding but also very supportive.
And Howard was a very interesting guy to work for, because he was from the historical Black community in southern Ontario. At the time I was working for him he was the only Black MP and he also had an extraordinary career as a professor, as a biochemist. He was head of the Biology Department at the University of Windsor. He had been a professor for 25 years, he published 45 scientific articles. So as an academic, scholar, as a scientist, he was a great model. He was also a wonderful orator, something which I think he inherited out of the Black community and also very, very committed to human rights. I met the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama came to meet us because Howard is one of the strongest supporters in the House of Commons, right. I was there but he didn’t give me one of his scarves, he gave Howard one of his scarves, but not me! (Just kidding!) And also Howard was able to get along with people from all the other parties. We had a Tory member, actually I think it was the Assistant Speaker of the House at the time in an office right across the corridor from us, Marcel Danis, he was a really wonderful guy to work with. Warren Allmand, a Liberal who was still there as an MP was excellent, as a Liberal. Oh, Joe Clark was great.  Joe Clark was wonderful. He was very supportive of Howard. Howard’s a third-party member, but because of knowing Howard’s interest in Africa, which he had never seen, Joe Clark arranged for Howard to go to Africa at least twice, if not thrice. And one of those trips was to represent Canada in a meeting with Nelson Mandela. Of course Mandela we met and Gorbachev, when he visited. I mean it wasn’t all like that, I have to say, there were a lot of very dull and boring kinds of days and also a great sense of frustration, at least for me, because, first we would do all these fireworks expressing opposition to free trade and the GST, but they still became law. It’s a frustrating thing because it’s almost like a game, it is a game. There I was working on these things, we are always running back to our constituents saying, damn GST, awful Free Trade Agreement, blah blah. I know this was simple fundamental easy stuff, but it was still grating after a while, it just got to be really grating. Like how can we build up all kinds of enthusiastic anger about the GST or about free trade when they are going to become law, anyway? The government has got the numbers so they are going to pass it, and we’ve been like hooting and hollering. I shouldn’t say that, we were doing important work and sometimes the government backpedals and changes a few things and this is good, and I am glad there is somebody here to do it. But after I left to do my Ph.D. at Queens, I knew I could never go back to anything political of that sort.
SG: Very frustrating.
GEC: Unless you’re in government, it is frustrating, but to come back to something else, Joe Clark was really good. In fact, I have to say I am one of the few Canadian poets to have a launch on the Hill, because Howard, as a “member,” could arrange for rooms to be made available for public events and so he decided to have a launch for me, for Whylah Falls. So I had a launch on the Hill and several MPs came and Joe Clark came and bought a copy of Whylah Falls.
SG: So what were your best moments?
GEC: I went through the 1988 free trade election in Windsor. I went down and was there for 49 days, Windsor, Ontario, fighting in the trenches. It was a big moment, it was a wonderful moment. Of the years I was on the Hill that was the best moment, because we actually did make a difference, not in the big picture, but in the small picture we did—we kept our seat. I kept my job. That was a big small victory because, as you may know or remember, the Liberals, oh god, look. First of all they should have won that campaign in 1988. If they hadn’t had Turner as leader, I think they would have won in ’88. First of all, of all the three parties, including the Tories who did win, they had the best campaign. The Liberals had the best campaign. The ads, I mean I will never forget, I was sitting in Howard’s—I spent the whole election campaign living at his house in Tecumseh, a suburb of Windsor—and I was there as a canvas organizer, so it was my job to get volunteers out on the streets knocking on people’s doors and getting them to vote for Howard. That was my job and I did it with great enthusiasm because it really was my job that was at stake. And I wasn’t ready to go back to Halifax yet so, I was very intent on getting as many volunteers out there as I could. We were successful, I mean the nice thing about that campaign was that everybody that was involved in that campaign were all seriously interested in trying to stop this Free Trade Agreement, back when I was a real Canadian nationalist. I mean, wow, Maude Barlow or Mel Hurtig had nothing on me. I was like a serious nationalist I was like, “we’ve got to stop the damn Americans they are taking over, blah blah.” And here’s the Tories selling out the country. But anyway, that was our rhetoric, but of course it did play well in Windsor, ’cause it was a union town, right. CAW [Canadian Auto Workers] of course was opposed to it. Once I did get out to Windsor, the feeling was like being in a crusade, it was, and we slept, ate, and drank opposition to free trade in Howard McCurdy’s office. We knew, we knew because it was Windsor, we knew long before the election was called in April or so, an election was called on October 1, 1988, and we knew six months before then that free trade was going to be a number one issue, we knew that. And the party didn’t know that, Ed Broadbent didn’t know that.  Ed Broadbent was accepting this advice saying, people don’t trust you on free trade, so don’t talk about it. And we could not believe it that the day Mulroney called the election, Ed Broadbent got up and made a statement that didn’t mention the Free Trade Agreement. Nobody could believe that. The unions couldn’t believe it, Howard couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it, nobody could believe that. What on earth was he thinking! We knew that this was going to be the defining wedge issue of the campaign, it was clear. So what we had done, it was embarrassing, the NDP Federal Office Ottawa had made up all this stuff that was going to ride on Ed’s popularity because he was like ‘Uncle Ed’, he’d had 40% in the polls in popularity in the summer of ’87, but that was a whole year ago and so the party had prepared all this stuff from their polling advice, bad advice as it turned out, that people wanted to be reassured that Ed was going to be a leader, good guy, because they couldn’t be sure of all those other NDP types, but Ed was okay, he had a good credibility factor. So they made up all these posters featuring Ed Broadbent rolled up sleeves, sort of like summer barbecue mode, smiling, very friendly, affable, avuncular, absolutely, and this was the party stuff we were getting sent down to us. We threw it all out. We just threw that stuff out. Forget about it. We put up posters with Howard, he had a black and white picture from 1984 which we got blown up, which was him pointing, like one of those Uncle Sam posters, Uncle Sam wants you, and it was like this accusatory, pointing mode. And we had that plastered all over our campaign office, because we knew free trade was going to be the issue, and when we brought out our literature that was what it was about—I was in charge of the literature- big maple leaves, we knew—so we put up big maple leaves, right. Liberals had it, we had bigger maple leaves, you know.
MF: George, but they were still maple leaves.
GEC: We had a black maple leaf, for crying out loud. We put out one black and white and it was extremely popular—we put out a black and white pamphlet that actually had that photograph of Howard and then it was merely a black photograph, so then the writing on it was in reverse, in white, and it was Ten Reasons Why Free Trade Is Awful, or no good, I forget exactly how the slogan went, but ten reasons, and so, you had the picture of Howard pointing and then inside, you had the explanation of ten reasons why it was bad and then on the back cover, big black Canadian maple Leaf, right, flag kind of design and like, for more information call this number. Come by our office. We had people coming in left and right. I mean we defeated Shaughnessy Cohen. We defeated the whole Liberal machine in Windsor, we defeated Herb Gray’sfolks who were over flanking us on either side, right. But we had to because, I mean, we just more passionate than anybody else was, on that issue in that campaign. And we had a real crusade, we had every type of person imaginable coming into our office and working for us. I still remember I had an interview, so to speak, with one former communist, maybe she’s still a member of the Communist Party of Canada and she came and she worked for us. We had the judge Margery Bowker in Alberta, put out all this stuff about how free trade was a bad deal.
It was ridiculous, but it was like going to war, being in a campaign is like going to war, it really is. You go there, you do your 49 days, 7-week campaign and we had a great campaign manager Ron Varley who was a steel worker. And of course there was another element in this—I had never really worked that closely with working-class people who were unionized and organized in that way, so these guys like flying pickets, you know, they were the CAW guys who would come in and go out. You’d have the steelworker guys come in and go out and do like a blitz of an area of the city, or area of the riding and that kind of thing. It was exciting. And we had all the school kids go out on Saturday. They all came in and they all went out. And that was great. But I still remember the Liberals had a great campaign. I’ll never forget. I was sitting in Howard’s den watching the television he had there with him, where the two of us were sitting there watching the news. And the first Liberal ad appeared on the Free Trade Agreement. The first one came on. It was these two guys sitting at a table and they were erasing the line, the border between Canada and the US, right, because they were negotiating free trade and then the American guy says, “Well, you’ve forgotten one thing,” and starts erasing the border. And then when that scene finishes, you see the Liberal insignia come up, of course designed like the Canadian flag, the L with the maple leaf in the middle, and then there was this kettle drum -ta dada! Da, dada!—you know. Oh god, it was like the CNN War-in-the-Gulf kettle drums. Howard jumped up and screamed, “There goes my seat!” (laughter) I fell on the floor, I mean—
MF: There goes my job.
GEC: There goes my job. It was a great ad. It was a fantastic ad. It was great. The only problem we had was they had [John] Turner, who could believe that Turner who used to direct 15 corporations, is anti-free trade, come on, right? You know. It was going to be easy for the Tories to do, as they did, to “bomb the bridge.” But I still point out, 6 million people voted for other parties and a lot of those 6 million were voting against free trade. Five million voted for the Tories. Okay they won, but the majority of people did not vote for them. I know that’s how the system works, first past the post, but still. In Windsor we won. And it is just too bad that the party hadn’t been able to really organize properly around that issue, you know. It was heartbreaking. I remember I didn’t want to hear the results until I got to the hall that we were using for the, hopefully, victory party, and somebody else, when I walked in, I had been deliberately staying away, hanging around the beach in Windsor at night—anyway, finally somebody drove me over—and I wasn’t sure whether we had won or lost—and I walked in, somebody mentioned it to me straight away, “we’d won!” and I’m like, screaming with joy. But then the TV is on and I see the results coming from other parts of the country and they had already announced a Tory majority, I think, because of Quebec.
MF: That’s so depressing … When we first met at Queen’s, George was the almost invisible Ph.D. student, the ghost. You’d see this strange figure scuttling in, grabbing a whole pile of mail and then vanishing again. He was busy, he had a job, in Ottawa.
SG: After this?
GEC: I worked for Howard from ’87 to ‘91. But I applied to Queen’s and was accepted in the fall of 1990 and I decided to go there and they didn’t have any money for me, because I think they accepted 22 students that year, but there was only funding for 10, or a dozen, I forget exactly the number now. But I was going to get a student loan and go anyway, I really wanted to go. This is another reason why Howard was so good. I went to him and I said, I’ve got to leave. I’d worked with him for three years at this point and I said, “I’ve got to go, I want to do my Ph.D., partly because you have a Ph.D., and I appreciate you as a Black male having done that, I feel I should do that.” And he said to me, “George, I respect that, don’t quit, here’s what we’ll do. You work for me four days out of the week, take Tuesdays off, because Tuesday is a slow news day, nothing is going on on Tuesdays. You go do your classes on Tuesday and work for me the rest of the week.” That was the deal. That’s what happened. So he trimmed my salary by a fifth and I took all my classes on Tuesdays.
MF: Which accounts for the strange selection of courses.
GEC: Exactly. They all had to be on Tuesday. That’s the only way to do it. So luckily for me, a course, John Matthews’ class, was on Tuesday, which was very helpful. And all I had to do, because I didn’t have a car back then, was rent a car the night before, late Monday night, 7 or 8 o’clock at the Ottawa airport and then drive down, about 5.00 a.m. in the morning I believe I left my apartment house in Ottawa and drive down Highway 15 to Queen’s. Park the car in the garage. Go do all my classes, the first one was Peter Sabor’s, starting at 8.30 in the morning and then last class was the fellow, now I’m going to forget his name, who was doing history of the book or a book production. Craig Ferguson, I think.
But, actually, I’m going to double back again as I have been going all afternoon here, the thing is, what was it that empowered me to do this. It was apparently working for Howard, but it was also a couple of things that may seem relatively silly. The first thing was I finished my MA thesis on Michael Ondaatje in the summer of ’89 ’cause I had moved to Ottawa after having of course started at Dal, and so I was working on it on and off at the time. Andy Wainwright and Patricia Monk were my advisors at Dalhousie for it, and I finally finished it and was able to graduate, in November ’89, and my mother came to my graduation. When we were there, we saw that Dal Ph.D. candidates or graduands all had these very nice black velvet, soft velvet looking caps, with gold tassels. My mother turned to me and said, “Georgie, you’ve got to get one of those.”
MF: You’re after those tassels.
GEC: So “okay mum,” so the next year I applied. Except I was really disappointed, she came to my graduation at Queen’s and I was really disappointed. No gold tassels. She didn’t mention it though. It was great that she came. My aunt came who I’m also very close to on my mother’s side, my mother’s sister, only sister and her husband, my Uncle Rex is from Jamaica originally who introduced the whole family to curry back in the early ‘70s when my Aunt Joan moved from New York City back to Nova Scotia. So it was really good that they were there. That was one thing, I said, “okay my mom will be happy if I could do this.” And the other thing was, I was invited to be on a show, a news program that was being produced out of Ottawa and the producer—it was a show about police violence on Black youth—and the producer asked me to be on the show, okay, and a guy from Toronto who’s a freelance writer but a Ph.D. in history, and the-then Solicitor General of Ontario. I felt I was sort of media savvy having done a few things before and having been an ex-journalist of sorts, so I didn’t have a lot of fear and trepidation about coming on the show. But I realized when I got on the show, I’m not blaming the producer for this, but it became pretty clear to me—and I mean I should have been less naïve and realized right away that I was going to be the token “voice of Black anger” vis-à-vis the Solicitor General, while the guy who was the history Ph.D. was going to be the voice of reason. You see how it was done … you know, it’s like “We’re going to have a debate here. You’re going to be this and you’re going to be that.” And the Solicitor General would be taking on both of you. That was really how the thing had been set up. But I hadn’t quite understood that. I thought I was just going to get on, I don’t know what I was thinking. But anyway, as far as I was concerned, the show did not go well, at least not for me, because I felt I was being boxed in and certainly the positions that the Solicitor General was taking really enforced it, because all they had to see was my Black face and then it was like, “You’re unreasonable, irrational, angry, fire-bomb-throwing guys, so I’m not going to take you seriously.” And that was the kind of attitude I was getting from him and I couldn’t understand it. Because I was thinking, why can’t we have a reasonable conversation. The police are bullies; we’ll start with that, okay? But the guy who had the Ph.D., they were giving him some authority and saying, “Well, what do you think of this, you have the historical perspective.” And he would say, “Well, yes, the RCMP massacred Native people, and so it’s no surprise that the Toronto police kill Black youth.” And it was like nobody could say anything back to that. So I was saying, um, this, and of course he was the doctor so and so on the screen and I was George Elliott Clarke, just nothing, right. And, I was thinking, “I don’t want to be positioned like this anymore, this is ridiculous.” And then after the show was over, the producer came up to the PhD and said, “Is your hotel okay?” And I’m like, okay, I live in Ottawa, so I guess I don’t come in for a hotel, but I had to make my own way to the studio, so I say, what about my taxi? Well I just thought, like hey, I’m getting a different standard of treatment here, and so I thought stupidly, naively, having a Ph.D. might just be the thing to get slightly better treatment here. That was also in 1989. And that’s another reason why I said, “okay, enough is enough, I’ve got to get this piece of paper too, so that the next time I get on television they could say doctor, blah blah, and I will have just a little bit more authority than I have as a poet—or as just myself.” Now, that thinking is bogus, I confess, but that’s one of my other motivations for wanting to go on and do that degree.
But, I’m going to double back again and talk about writing because going back to Halifax, ’85-’86, I ended up working in the Black community, I ended up getting all these other influences and doing writing that now I feel has some resonance with the community. Because I can read these poems back to people and they can say, “I understand that, I know those people you’re talking about, that’s the way we speak, etc. etc.” and that was really strong, really powerful for me. But the real turn around came in April 1986, the Black Cultural Centre had a fundraiser, they were three years old and they were raising funds still and I was invited as one of the local artists to perform. And “perform” is the word here. Everybody else on the program was a real performer, a dancer, an actor, a singer, a musician … something like that, and I was the token poet on the program. And so there was an audience of roughly 300 people, mainly Black, mainly people I knew growing up in Halifax and everything else. It was at the Rebecca Cohen Auditorium in Dalhousie. I will never forget it, it was a Friday night, I go and my first book was published in 1983, Saltwater Spirituals. So I’m a real poet, I’ve got a book, right, and I had been taught to read poetry at the University of Waterloo, so I get up there and I start reading poems from Saltwater Spirituals. That deal with Black history in the province, for crying out loud, and people started yelling at me: “Get off the stage,” “This is boring,” “Oh man, when are you going to stop,” “This is awful,” you know, stuff like this. So, of course, I was devastated. Here’s my single calling card, my one claim to hopeful fame, and everybody’s saying they don’t want to hear it, right. That was really bombing badly, if they had tomatoes, rotten fruit, I would have been plastered with the stuff. Because everybody else was a performer and I wasn’t performing, I was literally in a sense not performing for my own home audience. So, luckily I had a piece that’s in Whylah Fallscalled “Love Letter for an African Woman.” I’d just written it. And I started to read that and then the auditorium started to get quiet and then people started yelling, “Preach it, Amen, testify, that’s it, you’re home now.” Stuff like that. A total reversal of the reception I had been getting up to that point. And when I finished that piece there was, oh, really rich applause. Rich, rich, rich, lush applause. And I knew at that moment I would never write anything else again that I could not read before my community. That was, okay, fine, I understand that I have to have, there has to be a performative aspect, because if you want to talk about Black aesthetics that’s part of our aesthetic that is part and part of our cultural survival. And I understand that to be inside that aesthetic is a necessity if you want to have any kind of Black audience. I know M. NourbeSe Philip talks about this in one of her essays, oh, the last collection of essays.
SG: Genealogy of Resistance (1997).
GEC: Yes, Genealogy of Resistance. Thank you. And she makes exactly this point. In a way that is really honest and personal, she confesses in those essays that her largest audience consists of white women, and she also goes on to say that she wishes she had more Black readers. But as she understands that she won’t have more Black readers unless she has more of a performance aspect in her work. And that one of the liberating things for her was when she was reading from her great book, um, She Tries Her Tongue Language Softly Breaks (1988) – she ended up doing, hearing a reading of that, done as a kind of dramatic performance, two or three voices reading, as you know the book is a mish mash of typography, poems slanted down one side of the page and then across another side of the page and so on. So how do you read that. You can only read that as a polyphonous performance. It is, that’s what it is. A poem has to come with some kind of passion involved and some kind of giving of oneself to the audience, and not just a stand-back recitation, but rather, something that is really engaged, a presentation that really tries to speak to and with the audience. And so it was a humbling moment in 1986 and I’m glad I had it. Now I am really, really glad I had to go through that. And in a sense why shouldn’t I have had to go through that? If I had been a musician—I like to use this as an example-if I had been a musician, any kind of musician, or any kind of singer, I would have had those kind of audience reactions long before I got in front of that particular audience. People would have been telling me, “That was good, you sang well,” or “you didn’t sing well,” or “you played well,” “you didn’t play well.” No one feels they have to hold back for a performance, they all let you know right away, no matter what kind of audience it is, that was good or it wasn’t good, or it was so-so, what have you, you know, right away. But for some reason when it comes to hearing writers read, we don’t tend to apply the same kind of demand or standard. Or people, even if they feel bored, they’ll just clap and go away quietly.
SG: There’s no expectation that there is a real performative element to that. It’s just hearing the writer read their work, yeah?
GEC: Exactly, and in some ways that’s fear. Sure, why not. Because the writer only has to write, he or she doesn’t need to perform, the writing is the performance and so I agree with that. On the other hand, I don’t want to be reductive here, but I don’t feel that many Black audiences are going to have that point of view.
SG: I actually think it is something that a lot of audiences have been taught to suppress, because I would like to hear a real performance, I actually think that it’s just something that somehow has been suppressed.
MF: It’s high culture or something.
GEC: Yes, I think that’s it, but I know that for my community, uh uh. You really have to come with something that people are going to feel that they want to hear. I don’t mean to the extent that you tailor your message to the audience or that you—
MF: No, they are used to hearing interesting language, they don’t want to hear boring language.
GEC: Thank you. That’s a very good way to put it. It goes back to the church because the ministers, the deacons, etc. etc. are going to give spontaneous performances and they have to. One of the good things about living in Durham [North Carolina], I went to a Black American church, in fact, a Baptist church that Martin Luther King had preached in when he was coming through that area. White Rock Baptist church, in the Black part of Durham. And the fellow who preaches there, Reverend Dr. Reginald Van Stephens, is from Philadelphia originally. He has a doctorate—I’m not sure if it was divinity or theology or something. And he gives a performance. I mean, of course he knows the scripture, he has it all down, he’s mastered all the arguments. But he knows when he stands up there in front of his congregation that he has to be prepared and he must give them a performance—that’s a necessity. The people who are there are generally middle class, well-educated and so it’s not a class thing at all, it’s a cultural thing. They want to feel moved and maybe even entertained, but certainly a little bit of both. So they don’t feel they’re wasting their time or even their dollars they contribute to the church. There has to be something coming back, there has to be give-and-take. I remember clearly—I think it was last time we went to the church which was Mother’s Day because my aunt was visiting us in Durham and we took her to the church because she wanted to see what it was like—and he walked in and he said after the ceremony started, “Oh I see George and his family trying to hide back there” (laughter).
MF: Because you don’t come every week.
GEC: No. We don’t come every week. We weren’t going every week, but he incorporated us immediately into what was going on and so of course he said, “I see you’ve got somebody with you, who is that?” and I said, “It’s my aunt.” “Okay, let her stand up.” So, she stood up and everybody clapped. She’s from Halifax, okay, blah, blah. And then he said something along the lines of—I forget exactly how everything went—but it was something along the lines of, “I’m feeling really good today. The spirit has touched me. I feel like I better dance. I know that Baptists don’t dance, but I need to dance.” So, he danced a little bit in the pulpit, and everybody was great. So, that kind of thing is really—I don’t want to try to characterize everybody, but I do think that at least for some Black writers, probably if you’ve come through diaspora you’re interested in imitating, mimicking, following to a certain extent those performative traditions of the church (Cornel West says this) and musicians—the people who were freest to express themselves and express their culture historically and so I think that in terms of writing, that’s exactly where so many of us still take as our standard—to do something that moves in the way a sermon moves, or even the way a piece of music moves, if at all possible. So, that was my big revelation in Halifax. Then I ended up going to Ottawa where I wrote most of Whylah Falls and other things. Did the Queen’s thing of course. Yeah, as you know, I was called the ghost. I heard that. I heard I was called the ghost. Because I know I didn’t spend a lot of time in Kingston even though I had an apartment there, I didn’t spend a lot of time there.
MF: Well, good for you.
GEC: (laughter). It’s a nice town, it’s a nice town.
MF: So you came back and did your thesis.
SG: And the thesis was on?
GEC: Oh, it was a comparative study of African American and English Canadian poetics and poetry—the development of both actually. It was a John Matthews administered or supervised dissertation. I was his last graduate student. I think he knew that I was not going to get that dissertation written unless I came to Kingston and just stayed there. I was living in Ottawa at the time and so he made me. He had of course done his Ph.D. in record time—I think within one year, and he expected everyone to do it that way. He was well known for getting his graduate students through the program quickly.
MF: He would put people on bread and water and chain them to their desk, more or less, right?
SG: I’d love to know the secret.
MF: Well that’s it.
GEC: That’s what he did.
MF: He was pretty sick, but you had to go in and see him.
GEC: I didn’t know at the beginning though, you see. I think it was back in April that year. I had just finished the second year and finished my Canadian comprehensive exam and he asked, “what are you going to do for the summer,” and I said, “Well, I’ve got this project and that project and I’m writing my dissertation. I’m going to write it—no problem.” He said, “I don’t think you will. I think you’ll get so tied up with everything that you won’t have time and you won’t get to it. I know you well enough to feel that that’s going to be a problem. So, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to call the graduate residence right now and book a room for you. When do you want to come to Kingston?” (laughter). He said, “You’ll bring your computer, your books, of course we have a fine research library right here on campus who can also order in texts for you if you need them. You’ll come to Kingston, and oh yeah, the rooms cost thirteen dollars a night, which really isn’t that bad. They’re not air conditioned, but that’s okay because that will force you to get more work done, sooner, or more quickly.” So, that was it. So, I think I opted for the end of May roughly. I know I was finished by Canada Day. So, I was there for all of June. A month. And he met with me every day until the last week when he was really, really sick.
SG: Are you saying you wrote the dissertation in two months?
GEC: One month.
MF: And I heard a comment which will remain anonymous, “And you know what, it wasn’t half bad.” (laughter).
GEC: I think I was influenced by bell hooks and her Breaking Bread collection with Cornel West and they talk about the intellectual, why is it important to be a Black intellectual or an insurgent Black intellectualite. I really loved her. I lived by those essays and I was writing my dissertation because as she writes in one of her pieces, “It’s the loneliest time.” You know, that’s when you really have to face whether you can do this or not. Can you really, really bear down and write something that’s half way reasonable and a scholarly argument. And I also realized too that this is an important thing, it is extremely important to come through this system. It’s just another potential barrier for people in this society and one that people have to continue to think about traversing. I’m not making much sense here but—
MF: No, perfect sense.
GEC: I went to McGill in the fall of ’98 as visiting Chair there, I had a talk with one young Black man, student who was really, really questioning me. “Why is it important to do this work? Why aren’t you out there carrying picket signs? Isn’t this a waste of time?” He was a student, and he was telling me that he thinks it’s a waste of time to be taking courses when we have so many problems in our community. We should be out there really working in the streets to try and change things. And I was trying, trying, trying desperately to try to convince him that this work is also honorable, and it’s also important. People have to do this work, and you should be doing this work too. It doesn’t prevent any of us from picking up the picket signs and being there for the community when the community needs us, etc. But at the same time, we need to be able to take part in this other conversation which also defines what parameters we can use or what parameters we can occupy within the society. We need to be within the academy, in academia. I don’t think I convinced him. I never saw him again, and I feel really sorry because I had heard that he left McGill to do something.
SG: You may have planted a seed, you don’t know. You can’t know. What was it like when you were at Duke though? What was it like being from the Canadian point of view—I mean you’ve obviously written about it. But what does it feel like?
GEC: It’s strange. When I went to Duke, I was given a joint appointment in Canadian Studies and English literature. The understanding was that I was going to work on African American and English Canadian work, and I did to a certain extent, but at the same time—within the first eight months I started to shift my focus to African Canadian literature. Namely because I could look at the Black American field, and as much as I love the literature and grew up with the literature, I could see, hey, there’s a lot of work being done in this field, what am I really going to add to it? I can write another paper on Jean Toomer which might see something new in his work, or interesting in his work. I could take another vantage point on Du Bois, etc. I could write about Rita Dove and compare her to Toni Morrison and that sort of thing. Or, on the other hand, I could write papers on Michael Ondaatje and Thomas Chandler and so on and so forth. And I did write papers on them, and Ralph Gustafson and so on. I did write at least one paper looking at African Americans—Malcolm X and Miles Davis—a cultural studies paper, and that was interesting. But, I was asked by a Canadian scholar -a post-colonialist actually at Guelph to write a paper on African Canadian literature. That was in the fall of 1994. I received that request and started working on it in the spring of 1995. And what I discovered was, there was no real suitable bibliography. There wasn’t a whole lot of work that had been done in the area and I knew that, in order to write the short essay, I was going to have to do a bibliography. I had support from Duke to do that. And then that got me really thinking more and more about differences between African Canadian and African American lit. Then, by the fall of 1995, I decided to teach a course in African Canadian lit which is probably the first ever taught, and it was taught at Duke.
And of course, my African American students had various responses to this material which got me thinking even more about it. I taught a graduate course in the same area in the fall of 1996. It was Black diasporic literature, that’s right. It wasn’t just African Canadian. But it was the Canadian material that my African American students had real trouble with. That got me really thinking about it because they were sort of like, “Why is this Austin Clarke guy saying that the police are okay? That’s not our experience,” and, “Why is it that this Dany Laferrière is making all of these jokes about inter-racial relationships which are really on the one hand, maybe progressive, but on the other hand, maybe shows lack of solidarity with Blackness. What’s the problem with these Canadian writers that their Blackness seems to be really something that’s not as pronounced as we can see it being in African American texts, even when it’s being problematized, it seems to be far more present there than in these texts you’re making us read, Professor Clarke.”
And I’m like, “does this mean that these Canadian writers are all ‘Uncle Toms’? Or is there something else here that we need to think about? Does it have something to do with just being in Canada and having to assimilate Canadian ways, postures, view-points and ideals, and also, does it have something do with where these people are coming from?” And so, then when I started to look at it from that vantage point, I began to see it as being a very unique African diasporic literature because of the fact that it does come from the community that is still very much a minority. We can argue about whether Blacks are three percent or five percent of the Canadian population—okay, let’s say five percent, I’m willing to say that, let’s even say ten percent. It’s still a real minority, particularly outside the large cities, and when we say large cities we really mean three—Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto. But then, when we look at these three cities, the Black community in Vancouver is very small, and so then you really have Toronto and Montreal. And okay, the historical Black community is represented fairly well in Halifax, but it’s a small city. So, what about all of those places in Alberta and Saskatchewan and Manitoba where you can probably drive for many miles and never see a person of colour. What’s going on with that? How do we fit that into our schema, our thinking about Black Canadian identity? But then what about the fact that we’ve had communities here for over two hundred years? Are they Black or not? And if they are Black, what kind of Black are they? What do we mean by that? How do we think about that? And can we use Black American, and Black Caribbean, and Black African models to understand these communities here, or do we just write them off or many of them as simply being assimilated, or partially assimilated or just not Black in the way that we can think of being Black in the US or the Caribbean or Africa. But then again, I keep in mind that being ‘Black’ in all of these locations is a very different thing too.
The research for the essay just got me moving into a different area, and one that I started to see, yeah, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done here—a lot of historical work, a lot of anthologizing work, a lot of editing work, and just simply a lot of critical reading and thinking about what it means —because I think the danger I saw and still see, to a certain extent, is that people are saying Black Canadian literature begins with Austin Clarke. And to a certain extent, yeah, I’m willing to concede that point with a whole lot of asterisks attached. If we want to talk about the first novelist to be marketed as a Black writer who is saying something about the Black Caribbean/Canadian experience as being Austin Clarke in English—okay, yes, I’m willing to concede that but at the same time I want to direct people to the first Black novelists who came about in the nineteenth century, in the mid-nineteenth century. What was their experience? It must have been very different. It must have been even weirder than it was for Austin Clarke to be writing in Sudbury in 1958, let’s say. But then again, for first-generation immigrant writers, they’re coming from a majority Black background. They’re not from a background where they had to act as minorities or think as minorities. That’s a whole different kettle of fish, a whole different psychology that’s in play, and that’s another element that I think has to be addressed and thought about.
And then what about the second-generation writers? They’ve got another, I mean people growing up in Montreal or in Calgary, they still have a connection to their parental homeland, but at the same time they also have a connection to the territory, the regional city where they have grown up as “Canadians.” How do we think about their writing. Should we think about? Do we talk about it at all? These are questions that I think are extremely important that need to be addressed in order to get a holistic picture of the culture, the literature, literatures, or cultures. I think it is interesting and exciting to have a literature that people can call African diasporic, that comes from multiple groups of people who have come to Canada over several generations and over several centuries that in fact comprises people who in 1991, 43% of them could say, we’re not Black, we’re English or we’re French. I think that’s bizarre. You would never get that in the United States. Bizarre is not the right word, it’s interesting, it’s intriguing. What kind of Black consciousness produces those kinds of answers? Maybe it’s not a Black consciousness, maybe it’s a diffe rent kind of consciousness, maybe it’s a Caribbean consciousness. Maybe it’s a class consciousness instead. And what kind of literature then comes from people who have that kind of approach, that kind of thinking?
I think that what I’ve been interested in is trying to break down monolithic viewpoints of what Black writing is supposed to be, especially in Canada. I have this tussle with people all the time. There are folks who want to say, “Black writing is Black because it talks about being Black and it comes from Black people, this makes it Black writing.” Yeah, okay, I’m cool with that to a certain extent, but at the same time I want to say, “Well, what do you do with so and so, whose characters are white? What do you do with so and so, who wants to celebrate Britain? What do you do about so and so, who wants to celebrate being Canadian? Does that fit? If it does fit, how do you line them up against Richard Wright, or [Ralph] Ellison, or Toni Morrison, Alice Walker? How do you configure Dionne Brand with Audre Lorde? How does that work? How do you fit these people together? How do you compare and contrast them and so on? Are they really making the same statements or are their statements somewhat different?” I mean, one of the key things for me that separates immediately a Black Canadian from a Black American writer, no matter whether the Black was born in either country is the fact that—I’m going to make this claim, partly because I lived there—African America is a civilization. Black Canada is not that. Black Canada is a collection of different cultural experiences and entities. Maybe we could collapse them together and say it is a civilization, but I think that’s going too far. I think maybe fifty or a hundred years from now we might be able to say that, maybe twenty or ten years from now we’ll be able to say that, but we can’t right now, and that’s what makes our situation so different. What is Black America? Black America is at least—oh what are they, thirteen percent of the American population—so roughly the same population as Canada—thirty million people. You’ve got thirty million people with their own television, radio, newspapers, religious structures that aren’t just—as in Nova Scotia—a little group of poverty-stricken churches ( I don’t mind saying that because I’m proud of those churches too). Or, maybe a scattering of other churches in Toronto, Montreal, south western Ontario, maybe a couple of chapels on the prairies. But serious wealthy churches—maybe not as wealthy as others, but still very, very influential and powerful. It’s still a continuous historical tradition of writing, debate, universities. The Black university system. I mean, when I look at Black America, I see Quebec. I see the same kind of sub-cultural distinctive organization and thought patterns and philosophy, poetry, everything. And in fact, Black America does have, to some extent, the same kind of influence on American culture and politics and legal systems and everything as Quebec does within Canada. I mean they’re both beleaguered minorities in some ways, on the other hand, we in Canada always tend to think of African America as an impoverished, police-oppressed group. Yes, African Americans are to a large extent, at the same time we have to realize that two-thirds of African Americans are middle class. It doesn’t mean that they escape police brutality, but it does mean that they have some wealth and some power. For me, one of the most significant dates in African American history—that I don’t think even African Americans understand as being significant—is 1994. Why? The most important thing for me is an outsider looking at that culture, that civilization in the fall of 1994 is that some of their leaders were able to convince the Clinton administration to intervene in Haiti. As far as I know, and I’m not an expert on this, this was the first time in American history that Black Americans were able to call upon the armed might of the American state to intervene for their interests, for their agenda, and not somebody else’s. I mean, African Americans have always been going to war on behalf of the US state—in Vietnam, Korea, everywhere, all kinds of interventions in the hope that things would be better back home once they did their service for Uncle Sam. This was the first time they actually got Uncle Sam to do something for them internationally. I mean, even Somalia was not brought about mainly because of African American demands. That was newspapers, that was media in part. But Haiti was the Clinton administration’s response to Black electoral pressure and understanding that this was a very important bloc of votes. It also dove-tailed with their own self-interest. They didn’t want any more Haitians washing up on the shores of Florida. So, in that sense it was also good for the Clinton administration to act in that way, but it was a program above Republican objections, there wasn’t a hundred percent support in Congress, and as somebody who was living there at the time, I was under the impression—still am under the impression—that Clinton would not have acted if he hadn’t had strong pressure coming from Black Americans, or some Black American leaders in Congress, and Jesse Jackson, to go into Haiti. That was a significant moment, and I’m not sure it’s going to be repeated any time soon, but again, I really feel that was a real advance. Maybe advance isn’t quite the right word, it was a real watershed in African American history that they were able to get the military might of a superpower placed at their disposal, so to speak. That’s really amazing.
And so, okay, Black Canadians are not in that position. Very clearly, very simply not in that kind of a position. We’re also very different group of people because we have not had two hundred years of shared history together in large numbers, particularly in very important, strategically placed geographical locations within the country. That has not been our experience, so it’s no surprise that our “unity” is going to be a lot more dispersed and disparate than is the situation in the US where you can get a million men or women or youth on the street in Washington to protest or just come together in unity. I think that you might get a few thousand together in Toronto on some kind of basis of Black organization to achieve something, but it will take an awful lot of work, and it will take an extremely charismatic person to do that. And when you talk about national mobilization? Extremely difficult, because a lot in this country (you know, people in Ontario don’t understand it) is really regional, is really provincially controlled. So, you want a Black school? You don’t go to Ottawa, you go to Toronto, you go to Queen’s Park and you better hope it’s not Mike Harris sitting there in the premier’s chair. If you got Bob Rae there, you got a chance. Bob Rae’s gone so there won’t be any Black school unless somebody wants to fundraise, organize, and do it themselves. But I haven’t heard any discussion of it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen. But it would be far more difficult to pull that off here, even in Toronto, then it would be in Washington or New York where they have Black schools and Black churches and Black radio stations. We got a radio station finally in Toronto, and I thi nk that’s a really significant forward step. People had to organize together, collectively, because no one community is large enough, and influential enough, and powerful enough to pull off that kind of access, to win that kind of access. And so it really took a mass base community effort to finally convince the CRTC after having failed twice before that it was time for Toronto to have a Black-oriented radio station. So, things may be shifting. But I still think that anyone doing work in the area has to understand or come to terms with the fact that Black Canada is a far more—okay, I won’t say a more complex entity than African America, but certainly much more of a mosaic in terms of ideology, in terms of language, in terms of culture and so on than is the case in the United States, definitely. And this makes it harder to organize, and it means that the writers that come out of that community, if they choose even to call themselves Black or African, are going to have a very different kind of psychology and outlook than those who come out of the United States. And again, for me, I think that’s exciting. I think that’s interesting to explore as opposed to trying to impose an American model, a Caribbean model, or an African model because none of those models can really work here because we just have a whole different reality on the ground which writers themselves keep emphasizing whether others want them to or not. They keep doing it. That’s why it boggles my mind when somebody says to me, “Black writers should be more Black, should be writing more about being Black.” And I’m saying, “Yeah, okay, fine, but the question to ask is, why don’t they?” That to me is interesting, because maybe it’s not that they’re not aware of who they are, or they’re not aware of their history or their culture, but just because of the fact that they feel that their discourse has to take a slightly different direction because of where they are, and for that matter, where they came from. One of the most elementary things for me is, it’s understandable that Dany Laferrière could take racial stereotypes as he does in How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired(1985) and hold them out there and poke all kinds of fun at them. Of course he can do that. Why? Because he never grew up with them. For him, these are really objects, you can look at them objectively and turn them around and twist them because of the fact that you never had to negotiate them as a child, or seen one’s parents negotiate them. What did he have to negotiate? He had to negotiate being a middle-class journalist in a dictatorial country. That’s what he had to negotiate. He had to negotiate maybe being a more strict Catholic than a follower of Voodoo. These are the questions that he had—maybe he had to negotiate being darker-skinned as opposed to being a lighter-skinned Black because colourism is a big issue in a place like Haiti, or for that matter, Jamaica. So, these are the issues—not whether you’re Black, because everybody is Black, I mean it’s simple. Of course you’re not going to talk about being Black. If you grew up in a Black majority country, why on earth would you walk around thinking of yourself as being Black? There’s no need to. Everybody you see around you is. So, what’s your identity? Your identity comes out of your class and your religion, not out of your skin colour, it’s ridiculous. It’s only when you come to North America, or to Europe, or maybe South Africa that someone’s going to focus on your skin colour. And the first time that happens, you’re going to think, ” What? That’s insane. I went to a school that wouldn’t accept you or your parents because you don’t have enough money, or your manners aren’t correct, or your accent isn’t correct. Now, my friend is the son or daughter of the Prime Minister of whatever, and you’re trying to tell me I should be sweeping your streets, or I should be tanning your leather? Come on, I should be your Prime Minister, for crying out loud.” You know? I mean, because that’s mine—I mean, I’m speaking theoretically here, of course—but, you know, I see that. I shouldn’t keep harping on Austin but one reason why I love Austin’s work is because he does address class in ways that few Canadian writers do. He’s really into class, and he takes a conservative outlook on it. And so, people don’t see that, or they don’t understand that, or they have problems with that, and I don’t because I think, look it, if I’m coming from the upper middle-class or have aspirations to be in the upper middle-class, then that’s going to be my concern and what I write, not necessarily about bad white people. I want to talk about how I can get my formerly middle-class, or upper-class characters who have been forced into the lower-class because they were immigrants back into an upper-class position, or a higher class status. That’s what interests me. I mean, I shouldn’t be trying to speak for him, but that’s how I see, to some extent, his work working. So what’s that have to say to me as someone who’s from Nova Scotia who was born here? How does that reflect my reality? Well, it doesn’t necessarily. So, when someone says to me, “Austin is writing about being Black in Canada.” I have to say, “Well, yeah, sometimes.” And sometimes that applies to my experience, but he’s also writing about trying to become upper-class in Canada when you’re an immigrant from a developing country. To some extent, there are parallels there if you’re coming from a Black community in Nova Scotia. But, for the most part, I would see my struggle as racial and class is certainly a dimension of that, but that wouldn’t be the primary dimension, race would be my primary concern, maybe. That’s my background. I see these questions as being absolutely essential to explore in order to have kind of holistic vision of the literature once again. I’m trying for myself personally to get away from really reductive readings.
When someone says, because so and so plays the banjo and writes about being Black in P.E.I., they’re not really Black, because being real Black means you have this other kind of culture. For me, the Black banjo player from Prince Edward Island is vital, okay, maybe because I come from Nova Scotia and I knew people there who were Black who played the mandolin not banjo, and sang country and western music. So I’m supposed to say that these people don’t have a racial consciousness because that’s the kind of music they play or they enjoy playing or listening to along with funk and Black gospel music, I should add very quickly. But they like to play country and western music and that makes them non-Black? How? Exactly how? In what way? Because other people like the same kind of music? Well maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that they come from a rural environment. Let’s think about that. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that these are people who are working as small-time farmers, fishermen/women, miners, and therefore have a lifestyle where country and western and folk music makes sense to them, it’s their music. So, I’m supposed to come down from Toronto or from Halifax and say, “you’re not Black because you should be playing jazz?” No, I need to understand why they feel country and western speaks to them. That to me is what I need to understand, and understand what is Black about that. If I want to try and configure that as Black cultural expression, what is Black about that? Is it exactly the same as Nashville, or are there nuances that make it unique, and original, and different? That to me is what I need to explore. Or, is Black culture only something that happens in a big city like Toronto, or is it something that can also happen on the prairies and if so, what does it look like, what does it taste or feel like? What kind of experience is that? Does it mean that because it’s marginal, that it’s not important, or we can forget about it and just cast it out of the Black diasporic community because it doesn’t look like Barbados, because it doesn’t look Sierra Leone, because it doesn’t look like Harlem? Of course it doesn’t, it’s not there, it’s here. So, how do we configure that? How do we understand that cultural expressivity? How does it reflect where it is? What does that say to everybody else who is here? These to me are fascinating and intriguing questions.
SG: That wraps up the next few decades of your life.
GEC: I wanted to talk about so many things — very quickly, let me see. We talked about going down to the US and then the writing. In 1993 I graduated in the fall from Queen’s, and I had an interesting experience—I don’t mind saying this at all because many people had the same kind of experience. I defended in late September 1993 and I convocated in late October 1993 and because I’d already published a few things, people knew on the east coast that I was finished, that I was ready to go looking for a job, my first job and all that. And so I like to say to people ever since, the phone did not ring, nobody was calling to say—I applied to places and wasn’t getting answers back. I don’t think I even got any form letters back, it was just a big void. I told people what I was working on, what I was interested in—there was no response. Then of course I had to live, I had to survive, so I continued to do the same thing I’ve been doing before which is work on a screenplay, two screenplays which is what put me through graduate school. CBC—people say “did you get a SSHRC [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada] grant” No, I got two CBC grants to write movies for them. So anyway, I finished, the phone wasn’t ringing, nobody was offering me anything and nobody seemed interested in Canada in what I had to offer. But, I had been invited to Duke University to give a talk at the Canadian Studies Centre in April 1992, and I’d gone down there and I didn’t know it at the time but there were people there who were very interested in recruiting me back in April 1992 and I had no idea. I just knew that Ted Davidson who taught Canadian Literature liked my poetry and thought it would be interesting to have me come and give a talk and a reading at the Canadian Studies Centre. But, Cathy Davidson, who was his wife, and he decided that it would be nice to try to drum up further interest in my work. So, they put together a little luncheon at their house in rural North Carolina, not far from Durham—Hillsboro, North Carolina. And they invited a good swathe of the English Department to come to their little luncheon, and so who was there? Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Barbara Hernnstein Smith, Jonathan Goldberg, Michael Moon, of course Cathy, Ted, and probably a couple other people who I can’t remember now. I was basically given a congenial interview without knowing it at this little luncheon (laughter).
So, I finished my doctorate and I sent them a letter saying, “I’m finished, and if you’re still interested, I’d like to have another go at it.” So, they spoke to the President at Duke who was interested in me, the Provost, blah, blah, African American Studies, Canadian Studies, Department of English, and there was a lot of interest, so I was invited to come and give a job talk, and I did, and it was based on my dissertation (laughter). And I was hired by a majority vote, a strong majority vote, and I particularly really liked very much the fact that Stanley Fish was very, very supportive of my work. So, then I of course had to make plans to move to the US in the summer of 1994. Oh yeah, the other thing I have to say here—I’m not criticizing anybody—but I will say, as soon as word got out that I’d been hired at Duke, the phone rang at my home. An offer was sent to me from one institution by courier immediately. But of course by then it was too late and I was ready to go.
SG: Too late to save you.
GEC: I was feeling like, okay, where were these folks—
MF: Where were you when I needed you.
GEC: … when I was looking for what I was going to be doing to earn a living or looking for some other support. So anyway, I moved out and Duke was very, very good to me, but as soon as I got down there I became—not really homesick—but more my kind of nationalistic for Canada and all. I guess all my nationalism was still there. That of course encouraged me to continue to come back and do research and hang out and go to conferences and all the rest of that. I always had it in mind that I would come back to Canada, and of course eventually that’s what worked out. But at the same time, from 1994 to1999, I also started working on my play –Beatrice Chancy –which also became an opera, in fact it started off as an opera. In 1992 the composer, James Rolfe wrote to me when I was still in Kingston and asked me to consider writing a libretto for him, and so I said yes, having not done it before, having given it much thought, sure. So, I started working on that, and Beatrice Chancy was basically one of my American works because I was writing about slavery, I was starting to talk a little bit more about racism in ways I’d never really talked about it in my work before, and so that was important to me. I had a lot of support once again from Ted Davidson especially, various people at Duke who were interested in reading my manuscript and of course the folks in Toronto who wanted to put on the opera. So, anyway, one thing led to another, and the opera got staged formally. It had its debut performance in Toronto in June 1998 and it had its first stage production as a play in July 1997. And, what else can I say about that? I got a Bellagio Fellowshipto go to Italy because of it, so that was nice. I went and finished writing most of it there. So, that was the American experience. I’ve run past all kinds of stuff there. What could I say? I think I took a good three years before I started to feel that I was really there, and that was mainly because I kept coming back to Canada to do research and so on. I kept coming back here, and I would feel emotional about it. I’d go to Quebec City, I’d go to Halifax, come to Toronto, and I’d think, “Oh, what have I given up going to the US?” And, in some ways that was positive because it really made me think about Canada more fully than I had before, on the other hand, I wasn’t fair to the US. I didn’t give Americans enough due. Then, my wife and I were ready to make that commitment to stay there and then (laughter) I heard that U of T [University of Toronto] was interested in taking a look at my file. So, one thing led to another and I got an offer that I thought was pretty good, and because I’d always thought about coming back to Canada, we decided to come back. But I have to say, at the same time, just before I came back, I would really say in later ’98 or ’99, I was really starting to feel quite comfortable being quasi-American. I remember when I first went down there I was at a dinner party at Ted Davidson’s with John Thompson who was a Canadianist at the Canadian Studies Centre at Duke, from Manitoba originally, this is the first year I was there and John—we were talking about US imperialism of course—John said something about the US but he started using the words ‘we’, and he was talking about Americans. He was saying we do this or we do that. I forget what the exact sentence was but I remember immediately saying, “What are you talking about this we? You’re a Canadian.” And he was sort of silent, he didn’t say anything about that. But then, by the time I was ready to leave I was thinking ‘we’ as in being part of this great American experiment. With all of its problems and contradictions. I hope I’ll always maintain little bit of that appreciation I finally started to develop for the US, I hope I will. As much as I think I know and like Canada and love this country, I think that being in the US was a really good experience in a lot of ways. I mean, being anywhere other than your native country is very, very good, I think. First of all—I mean I don’t want to fall into a whole bunch of clichés here which is easy to do when you talk about national differences—but one of the things that I really started to appreciate about the US was that people are more honest, they’re not as hypocritical, I’m going to say that, they’re not as hypocritical as Canadians. Canadians are hypocritical about race and racism and cultural difference. We are big hypocrites about it because we pretend that everything is fine, it’s just a few bad police and a few bad other folks out there who do the racism, everybody else is perfectly fine, and the real racist problem is the US. I mean it’s funny, when I was down there and coming back, I would pick up the paper and almost every day, whether it was theGlobe, or the Toronto Star, or any paper in this country, there was always at least one article that was extremely critical of the US either in an editorial or in terms of a news story because, of course, papers get all kinds of news stories sent to them over the wires and they choose certain ones and ignore others. Canadian media was always running stories that were somewhat critical of American behaviour and American ways. And I understood that because we have to justify to ourselves why we’re not part of the US, why we decided to take a different route from the American Revolution. We remind ourselves every day that we took the better route. I understand that, and maybe it was the better route, but at the same time, it presents a very skewed idea of the United States.
I mean, I don’t think that Canadians, unless they’ve travelled and lived there quite a bit, have a good understanding of the United States. I mean one of the things that I had to come to terms with as somebody who is on the left—and this is really weird, being on the left and living in the US is a weird situation to be in. I mean in Canada, it’s okay because the country is not a superpower, and the left isn’t in power anyway, at a national level, and so you’re used to thinking in a kind of oppositional way and in a way that is about trying to influence people who are in power, trying maybe to get power at the provincial level, and so on and so forth. But in the US, there is only one effective left-leaning party, and you will see that as a big contradiction in terms, and it’s the Democratic Party. I used to think that there was no left in the US, everybody was either liberal or conservative, like Republican or Democrat and that was that. I just thought they were all members of some really minor party like Socialists of America or something which has no power and very little membership. I didn’t understand it until I went down there that, in fact—this is bizarre—the Democratic Party actually, at least its rhetoric, is not different, is not unlike New Democratic Party rhetoric—it’s not. It’s like, “We’re all about public housing, we’re all about ending racism, we’re all about rights for everybody, we’re all about progress and the environment, everything.” That’s the party’s official policy, written on national conventions, the party platform, the policy. That’s fascinating, because of course, that party is in power at least in the White House. The guy who’s President, the leader of the party supposedly has a platform that has everything in it that is not unlike New Democratic Party stuff, but then there’s a huge problem with that at the same time. Even though he’s got this left-leaning constituency out there within the Democratic Party, he’s got a huge problem in that sense. I shouldn’t say he does—he does because Clinton wouldn’t feel he has a problem—but for me looking at it, there’s one huge contradiction with all this. The President, the Senators, the Congressmen and women—are also representing a superpower with global responsibilities that lead to, sometimes, very unsavory actions on the part of the state. And for that matter, for the sake of domestic politics, some very unsavory domestic legislation, and yet they’ve got all this really progressive rhetoric, it’s wild. But then you have to think about it. Since this is the reality there, it means that you have to work within, if you’re on the left and you want to get anywhere, I mean you can try to build a third party and the Greens are doing better now especially with Ralph Nader as the Presidential candidate than they have been previously, but still, by and large, your left-leaning politics is bound up within the Democratic Party. But at the same time a party that has lots of ties to big business, corporations, and big corporate interests makes for a very difficult balance. What I was starting to try and understand while living there was that, like it or not, this is probably the way you’re going to have to do things if you want to get any kind of progressive legislation passed or laws enacted. You had to work through this, or probably you’re going to end up working through this party. At the same time, this party has a leader who is in charge of this incredible, capitalist, imperialist colossus. That’s what I’m trying to say. How do you do that? I mean, in pure Marxist terms, you can’t. On the other hand, what’s the alternative? Yes, you can work forever with a small third-party of some sort and do some local things, or even try to build some kind of national movement, but even with that, it’s extremely difficult. What I liked and saw of their experience was the fact that people were more honest about where they stand, in fact, they’re more willing to fight with you about it openly and not hide their feelings, they’ll just tell you upfront, “This is how I feel.” Again, I don’t want to support stereotypes, but in Canada, if you’re really interested in fighting racism and sexism and homophobia, you’ve got a problem because everybody is on side. The Canadian Alliance is against all of that, the Conservatives are against all of that, the Liberals are against all of that, NDP is against all of that. So, okay, everything should be fine, this should be paradise then. Except of course, it’s not. Except of course you still have to fight all of these battles, but against people who keep saying “we’re really on your side.” In the US of course, they’re upfront, “No, we don’t like you” (laughter). And that’s healthy because you know who your friends are and you know who doesn’t like you. And in terms of organizing it makes things a lot easier. You may not win in the end but it makes it a lot easier, you know you’re not shadowboxing, you know you’re not beating up on friends, or for that matter, going along with false friends. You know who is on your side and who isn’t. That kind of clarity is really dynamic, it really sharpens you. So, I know as a result of having lived down there, I started writing poems that were far more confrontational than the poems I was writing when I was still living in Canada.
SG: The big sin in Canada is to be confrontational.
MF: It’s rude.
GEC: It’s rude, it’s impolite, it’s unpardonable.
MF: That’s right. It might hurt somebody’s feelings.
GEC: You can’t say that. (laughter). I like that. That’s one thing I miss having come back here, and I keep trying to hope that I’m maintaining some sense of—but we learned a lesson, I shouldn’t say this either in terms of confessions. I shouldn’t say this—no I’m not going to say it.
SG: We can always cut it out afterwards. Go on, George.
GEC: No, I can’t. You see, I’ve learned my lesson. I learned my lesson. I’m not going to say anything about this, but I will generally say that I had an occasion where I was invited to say what I thought about a certain situation before figures of authority, and I took that invitation to its letter and was critical—although not unthinkingly critical—of a certain institution, and the result was people were very unhappy with me.
But I have to say that again and not to belabor this point or beating a dead horse, things were just a little more open in the US. But that of course had a price tag too. Things were a little more violent in the US because of that. The way I like to sum it up for people is to say, if they like you they love you, if they hate you they’ll kill you, they’ll shoot you, that’s basically it. So, of course, I prefer to have a little bit more of the grey then just strictly black and white. That’s one reason I decided to come back here because I didn’t want to end up in a situation where I was going to feel in fear of my life, not because of anything I would say, but because when you get people who like to bear arms, they will. And they’ll use them. And feel they have a right to.
SG: There are many different ways of killing people though, right?
GEC: It’s true but that percolates throughout the entire society, that revolutionary ethos is there. Even all Americans themselves may not always recognize its existence. I feel as an outsider living there looking at the society that yeah, they really do believe in it, even if they have diametrically opposed, polarized viewpoints of what the letter or the constitution means. The spirit of it? They really do believe in it—the right to bear arms is a problematic one, but yes, they do believe in that—but they also believe, more or less in the freedom of speech and so on and so forth, maybe a little bit more than we do in Canada. But, at the same time, it’s true, simply because it is somewhat more dynamic and liberal as a society, it tends to be a little bit more lawless, where people tend to feel they can take the law into their own hands a bit more, or do whatever they want a little more. And that’s both positive and, of course, very negative in terms of the result in violence that that attitude tends to encourage.
SG: Okay, that’s it? (laughter)
MF: We can do Volume Two.
GEC: Oh yes, new project, which I hope will be a kind of extension of Beatrice Chancy and other poems I’ve been writing over the last few years, and that is a novel which is the reason why I was in Fredericton last week. Six years ago my mother mentioned to me that my two first cousins once removed -George and Rufus Hamilton—who were born in the same place I was born (Windsor, Nova Scotia) and George Hamilton and I were named for the same person. His grandfather, my great grandfather, George Johnson, also of Windsor Plains—to make a long story short, my mother told me that these two fellows, two brothers, were executed in Fredericton for murder in 1949. They robbed a taxi driver and in order to effect the robbery, hit him over head with a hammer too hard, once or twice, but it was enough. He died either immediately or shortly thereafter. This happened on a Friday night, January 1949. They were arrested on a Tuesday afternoon. They made no attempt to get away, they did hide evidence including the body which they put in the trunk of the gentleman’s taxicab, and then they just drove the taxi down a not- well-used road, but used well enough that someone stumbled across the remains Monday, just a couple days after the murder itself which I believe was accidental. I was fascinated by this because I had a great aunt—Portia White—who was a great contralto in the 1940s and is now on one of the Canadian Millennium stamps, and I knew all about her when I was a kid growing up. She’s in the same series as Glenn Gould and the others as a music pioneer in the country. She was my great aunt so I’m very proud of her and what she accomplished. She was an influence for Walter Borden. I always knew about her, she was always a role model for me. But, of course, my mum and her side of my family were always embarrassed by what happened to these two guys. So, for most of my life I had never heard of them until six years ago when I was thirty-four, and then I started doing research. I went to the national archives and dug up the files for these guys of the trial, the records, transcripts, and read them, fourteen hundred pages of documentation of the trials, they had separate trials and what happened to them. Up to the hangings and all that—it was a double hanging, by the way, in Fredericton. Ten thousand people tried to see. I just found that out last week. I decided I needed to write something about them and I decided it would be a novel, my first novel. But the other thing about this case that I want to do more work in is exactly how the death penalty cases, or capital cases in Canada, have the death penalty help to eliminate racial and ethnic relations in this country. It’s fascinating. I don’t want to sound too morbid. Okay, the US as we know, the death penalty has always been at least somewhat racist in its application. If you’re white you might get life imprisonment or even get a lesser sentence and not necessarily be executed. If you were Black you were more likely just to go straight to execution, no matter whether we are talking 1999 or 2000 or 1800 or 1899 what have you. In Canada, as usual, it was a little bit more complicated and also a little bit more equal opportunity. The way it worked here—I’m no expert in this—but I looked at the files that they kept from 1867 to 1962 when the last hangings took place, right here in Toronto actually. If you were of British extraction you had a fighting chance, that you might get exonerated, or rather, that you might not get hanged if you were British in origin, except of course if you were Irish or Scottish, that might count against you actually in terms of the death penalty. But, if you were French Canadian, Native Canadian, southern European, eastern European in extraction, or Black but from the West Indies or the US, you were more likely to be hanged here. I’m trying to figure out exactly what I should do about this. Going back to the thing about my cousins , looking at their case, and looking at a couple of others as well, and I think they really do illuminate in ways that other historical documents don’t, exactly how communities interacted and interrelated. For instance, I came across one case from 1885, Nova Scotia. A Black man was convicted of first degree murder because he had stabbed a white man who later died. He was convicted and sentenced to hang but his sentence must have been commuted because nine years later his wife was writing to him in Kingston penitentiary, so it got commuted. I think the reason why is because of the context of the case which—it’s taking me a long way to say this—but what was really fascinating about this case when I looked up the records, the actual records of the trial was that the stabbing took place in the context of a riot that no one has ever documented or talked about. They had a little riot in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, in May 1885 on a Saturday night, and the reason why—it involved roughly about twenty white men and five or six Black men, so it was a small riot but it was a riot.
MF: It’s a riot. You get that many people, yes.
GEC: What had happened was from the testimony given in court, it appears that one of the Black men had been dating a white woman in Bridgetown. Some of these white men didn’t like the idea, to put it mildly, and so they began hurling stones and insults at a small group of Black men standing at the entranceway to the road leading into the Black community just outside of Bridgetown. These guys decided then to rush the Black man so this group of twenty white guys is coming down upon this group of five or six Black men, and in the ensuing melée, one of the Black men stabs one of the white men. So, it was self defense. Now, the judge at the trial tried to keep all of this out. He was trying to keep this information suppressed from his charge, the jury and his attitude towards the defense attorney. But the defense attorney is very good at bringing out what was going on in Bridgetown at the time this stabbing took place. So, I think that’s why the sentence got commuted eventually to life in prison. Not that that is much better than being hanged, but still. I think that’s why it happened because it was this context of self defense but beyond that, there’s the whole question of this riot that was going on that no historian has talked about because it doesn’t exist in any records except in this court case. And so, I think that a lot of these hangings have to be looked at again as to exactly what they meant in terms of race relations and ethnic relations at the time they took place.
And, there are other cases that I think we need to look at. I’m a scholar of Canadian literature and specifically Black Canadian writing. People haven’t talked about these cases or written about them unlike the US where these cases have been turned into literature from time to time or even examined by legal scholars. But I think that’s yet another thing. I also feel a kind of obligation to recover these bodies, to find out what social factors led to these people being condemned to the gallows. And what that says about the society as a whole at the time. So, I don’t know where this is going to go, I have no idea. All I know is that I’m learning a lot about hangings (laughter).
 Alexa McDonough (1944- ) was the leader of the New Democratic Party of Nova Scotia from 1980 to 1994 and leader of the New Democratic Party from 1995 to 2003, when she was succeeded by Jack Layton.
 Geraldine Elizabeth Clarke (1939-2000)
 William Lloyd Clarke (1935-2005)
 The October Crisis was the result of the kidnapping of two government officials, British Trade Commissioner James Cross, and Minister of Labour of Quebec Pierre Laporte, by the terrorist group Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) in October of 1970. The FLQ murdered Pierre Laporte, and held James Cross for sixty days in exchange for political prisoners. The incident caused Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to implement the War Measures Act. That December, five of the FLQ members were granted safe passage to Cuba.
 Burnley “Rocky” Jones, born in Truro, Nova Scotia in 1941, was a key figure of the Black movement in Canada in the 1960s.
 The Black Panther Party, a Marxist/ Maoist African American organization, promoted Black Power and self-defence from police brutality in the United States from 1966 to its disintegration in the early 1970s.
 Mi’qmaq or Micmac are a First Nations people originating in the coastal areas of the Gaspé Peninsula and the Maritimes; many now also live in Newfoundland, and New England, particularly Boston.
 Walter Borden, actor, poet, playwright, teacher and activist, organized the Black theatre company Kwacha in 1984. He is the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, the African Nova Scotian Music Association Music Heritage Award and the Portia White Prize, an award given out annually for significant contribution to arts and culture in Nova Scotia.
 David Renton (1934-2006) was an actor, artistic director, and one of the founders of the Halifax Neptune Theatre. In 2003, he received the Robert Merritt Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to theatre in Nova Scotia.
 Encounter at Kwacha House- Halifax (1967) is an 18 minute documentary directed by Rex Tasker.
 James Walker (1940-) specializes in Canadian Blacks, Race Relations and African Human Rights at the University of Waterloo. His books include The Black Loyalists (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992) and “Race”, Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1997),
 Tightrope Time: Ain’t Nuthin’ More Than Some Itty Bitty Madness Between Twilight & Dawn (Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 2005).
 Soul On Ice (New York: Dell, 1970) is by American Civil Rights leader Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998).
 Parliament-Funkadelic is a funk music collective headed by George Clinton that has been around since the 1960s. In 1997 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
 Ohio Players is a funk-soul Band with major hits in the 1970s.
 Kool & the Gang is a jazz/R&B/soul/disco group that has been around since 1964.
 Reeves, Donald. Notes of a Processed Brother (New York: Pantheon, 1972).
 George McCurdy, originally from Amherstburg, Ontario, a Black activist, was appointed the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commissioner in 1971.
 This referendum, which took place on May 20, 1980, was called by Quebec’s Parti Québécois. It was the first referendum in which Quebec sought sovereignty from the rest of Canada. The proposal was defeated 60 to 40.
 See his book Native Song: Poetry and Painting (Lawrencetown Beach, NS: Pottersfield , 1990).
 Other relatives of Clarke say his grandfather was part Cherokee.
 See Clarke’s book Africadian History: An Exhibition Catalogue (Wolfville, NS: Gaspereau, 2001).
 Bridglal Pachai, professor and writer, was born in South Africa and moved to Halifax in 1975. In 1989 he was appointed Director of Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. His books include his autobiography My Africa, My Canada (Hantsport, NS: Lancelot, 1989).
 En Lutte/In Struggle was a Maoist organization.
 Samuel Selvon (1923-1994) was a Trinidad-born writer who lived in Britain and Canada. His books includeThe Lonely Londoners (New York: St. Martin’s, 1956) and Moses Ascending (London: Davis-Poynter, 1975).
 Sylvia Hamilton is a Nova Scotian filmmaker and writer. Her films include Black Mother Black Daughter(1989), and Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia (1993), which won a Gemini Award.
 See Hansard: http://www.leg.bc.ca/Hansard/35th4th/h0420pm.htm
 Anne Derrick graduated from Dalhousie in 1980. Her legal practice included public interest and equality litigation, criminal law and social justice advocacy. She now works as a Halifax Youth Court Judge.
 Eric McCormick, is an Associate Professor of English at St. Jerome’s University (associated with the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), where he has been since 1970. His publications includeThe Paradise Motel (Markham, ON: Viking, 1989), and Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (Toronto: Viking, 1997).
 Patricia Monk’s published books include The Gilded Beaver: An Introduction to the Life and Work of James De Mille (Toronto: ECW, 1991).
 John Fraser (1928-) is a critic, literary theorist, and cultural analyst. His books include Violence in the Arts(Cambridge: CUP, 1974) and America and the Patterns of Chivalry (New York: Cambridge UP, 1982)
 Carol Hoorn Fraser (1930-1991) was a Minnesota-born artist.
 Buddy Daye was a Canadian boxer and community activist in Nova Scotia. In 1990 he became the first African Nova Scotian Sergeant-at-Arms for the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, where he served until his death in 1995.
 Howard McCurdy, (1932-) nephew of George McCurdy, is a retired politician and professor. He was the first NDP African Canadian Member of Parliament, serving from 1984 to 1993, and the second African-Canadian MP after Lincoln Alexander, a Progressive Conservative member who served from 1968 to 1984.
 Charles R. Saunders (1946-) is an African American author and journalist living in Canada. He works in fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, and radio plays.
 Percy Paris has represented the New Democratic Party in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly since 2006.
 William Warren Allmand (1932- ) was a member of the Liberal Party and held three different Cabinet posts between 1972 and 1975.
 Joe Clark (1939- ) served as Progressive Conservative Prime Minister from June 4, 1979 to March 3, 1980.
 Maude Victoria Barlow (1947-) is a Canadian author and activist. She is chairperson of the Council of Canadians, founder of Blue Planet Project, and the first Senior Advisor on water issues in the United Nations.
 Mel Hurtig (1932-) is a Canadian publisher, author, and economic nationalist. He is a founding member of both the Committee for an Independent Canada and the Council of Canadians. Hurtig published The Canadian Encyclopedia in 1995.
 Ed Broadbent (1936-) was leader of the New Democratic Party from 1975 to 1989.
 Elizabeth Shaughnessy Cohen (1948-1998) succeeded Howard McCurdy, representing the riding of Windsor-St. Clair for the Liberal Party of Canada from 1993 to 1998.
 Herb Gray (1931-) was a Liberal MP from 1962 to 2002, representing Essex West then Windsor West. He is the longest continuously-serving Member of Parliament in Canadian history.
 “Bomb the bridge” is slang for “destroy the credibility of the messenger.”
 Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues (Porter’s Lakes, NS: Pottersfield, 1983.)
 Marlene NourbeSe Philip is a Canadian poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright, born in 1947 in Tobago. She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry in 1990, and the McDowell Fellowship in 1991.
 bell hooks is the pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins (1952-), an American author, feminist, and social activist. Her writing focuses the interconnectivity of gender, race, teaching and the significance of media for contemporary culture.
 Jean Toomer (1894-1967), an American poet and novelist of mixed ethnic decent, was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His most influential work is his novel Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923)
 Austin Clarke (1934-) is a Canadian novelist, essayist and short story writer. He won both the Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for his novel The Polished Hoe in 2003.
 Dany Laferrière (1953-) is a Haitian-born Canadian author and journalist.
 According to the 2001 Census, 662 200 people identified themselves as Black, representing just over 2% of Canada’s total population and 17% of the visible minority population. See Statistics Canadahttp://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/11-002-XIE/2004/03/07604/07604_04.htm
 In 1991 a military coup took place in Haiti usurping the elected president. Although the United States Congress was opposed to American intervention, Bill Clinton adopted the provisions of the thirty-nine members of the Black Caucus, and in 1994 Clinton deployed a large military force in Haiti.
 Stanley Fish (1938-) is an American literary theorist and legal scholar.
 Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center (Italy) Fellowship.
 George and Rue (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2005)