HALIFAX — Nova Scotia will only reach its potential when people who have been previously excluded, like African Nova Scotians and the Mi'kmaq, can see themselves as participants in society, Premier Stephen McNeil said Friday in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the province's human rights commission.
He said Nova Scotia must continue working to ensure minority communities are reflected in the province's institutions and in the community at large.
He reflected on a pace of change hindered by systemic racism, saying "our ancestors have not done so well."
As an example, the premier noted that his government had just recently appointed the first Mi'kmaq woman to the province's judiciary. When she was named in January, Catherine Benton become only the second Mi'kmaq to serve as a judge in Nova Scotia.
"Think about that for a second," McNeil said at a ceremony at Halifax's Citadel High School. "The country may be 150 years old, this province is over 400 years old and the founding people were here longer than that."
McNeil said when he entered public life he was "alarmed" by the lack of diversity in the judicial system and that's why the province has worked to increase African Nova Scotian representation in particular.
He said the need is still evident because of the "overwhelming" numbers of African Nova Scotians and Aboriginals who stand before the province's courts.
"The people looking down and judging them don't reflect who they are. That should not be our province. You have to be able to see yourself in this province in order to be able to aspire to be everything we can be."
McNeil said the challenges of Nova Scotia's past have to be acknowledged.
"Let that be the foundation of moving forward together ... building this province in a thoughtful, caring, kind, loving way," he said.
The theme of the commission's anniversary is "Learning from our past, building for our future."
Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, chairwoman of the Senate's committee on human rights, picked up on the theme in her remarks, saying it had her thinking back 50 years to her time as a high school student in Halifax.
"I remember actively working with my peers to challenge the racism that we were experiencing in high school. How did I know? I just knew what was fundamentally wrong and I knew that I wanted to be part of the change process."
Thomas Bernard said she also remembers the commission's beginnings in 1967, saying it was created because of the racial discrimination that African Nova Scotians and Mi'kmaq people were experiencing.
"The building for our future really begins with us working together to make change happen," she said.
The commission handed out a series of awards Friday recognizing individuals and organizations that have been engaged in "ensuring respect for human rights."
Among the recipients was Wade Smith, the former principal of Citadel High who was recognized posthumously for his leadership in inclusive education and community mentorship. The Bill 59 Community Alliance was also given an award for its work on behalf of persons with disabilities and its role in getting changes to province-wide accessibility legislation.
But it was 11-year-old youth award recipient Joshua Cochrane who drew a standing ovation for a speech that offered a simple, yet profound approach to the rights of others.
Cochrane, who is affected by autism, told the audience that "everyone has the ability to choose kindness."
"When you choose kindness and acceptance and include everyone, your heart will be happy," he said.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press