HALIFAX (CP) - Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean used a speech to the Nova Scotia legislature to tackle the touchy issue of racism in the province, urging citizens Tuesday to "take apart the walls of difference that continue to separate us."
Jean's address marked the first time any Governor General has spoken before the assembly, which is Canada's oldest seat of government. While she praised Nova Scotia for its rich blend of cultures, including Acadian francophones, United Empire Loyalists and the Mi'kmaq, Jean said there are ethnic and racial barriers that need to come down.
"As Governor General of Canada, I have pledged to use my office to focus attention on the importance of breaking down such solitudes," she said.
She reminded politicians of the "wrongs of the past," including the expropriation and destruction of the black community of Africville in the late 1960s.
At the time, officials said the hardscrabble community in Halifax's north end, which had no running water or sewer services, had to be moved to make way for a bridge across Halifax harbour.
"The success of Nova Scotia, like the success of Canada, is compromised when people within the community suffer from poverty or discrimination of any kind," she said, stressing that racism is still a problem in the province.
The issue attracted headlines last month when Percy Paris, the sole black politician in the assembly, said he had been the target of subtle, racist taunts in the legislature ever since he was elected last June.
Paris said some members of the house heckled him with more vigour than white members, and others simply ignored him.
While Jean didn't mention Paris's allegations in her speech, she warmly greeted the New Democrat member at a later reception.
Afterward, Paris said Jean's comments about racism carried more weight than anything he could say.
"Who am I? I'm just a small fish in a big, big pond," he said in an interview. "She's a big fish, much larger than I."
Paris said he was in the audience Monday when Jean delivered a hard-hitting speech at the Black Cultural Centre in Dartmouth, N.S., that also focused on racism in Nova Scotia.
She spoke of last year's arson-related destruction of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society office in Birchtown, N.S., and acts of racist vandalism elsewhere.
"Whether it's hidden behind a hypocritical smile or expressed by means of spray painting graffiti on a wall, racism continues to put down its insidious roots in the fertile soil of indifference and fear of the other," Jean said, speaking in French.
Paris said he "absolutely agrees."
"There's that subtleness of racism that exists today that if we don't talk about, if we don't try to eradicate it, we're not moving forward as a country or a province."
Paris said the province's Education Department should rewrite history textbooks to include the stories of the province's minority groups.
Barry Barnett, the minister responsible for the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs, said that as a white Nova Scotian he can't comment on whether racism exists in the legislature.
"It's a difficult thing for me to answer," he said. "I think it is a personal perspective of what a person sees."
Still, Barnett said the province's Tory minority government is making progress, notably its decision two years ago to set up a separate office to deal with African Nova Scotians.
Jean concludes her visit to Nova Scotia on Wednesday.
Copyright © 2007 Canadian Press