Percy Paris and the pressures of being the only black MLA

This post was originally published at LocalXpress.ca, a news site started by the newsroom and news bureau staff of the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

 

By SANDRA HANNEBOHM

‘Here I was, the only African-Nova Scotian in the House and I’d be asking questions to the minister of African Nova Scotian affairs, who was white,’ recalls Percy Paris.

The NDP MLA held the seat of Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank in Province House for two terms. Paris spent his first term (2006-2009) in opposition, and his second (2009-2013) in government. For all seven years, he was the only African-Nova Scotian in the House.

He was also the third African-Nova Scotian to ever hold a seat in the legislature, so he was surprised that the then minister of African Nova Scotian affairs didn’t congratulate him on winning the election.

“I was disappointed that he didn't come over to congratulate me on winning the seat — whether it be beating out somebody from his party or not.”

By the end of his career, Percy Paris would himself become the minister of African Nova Scotian affairs, and faced white critics of that portfolio from the opposition benches.

While minister, his Progressive Conservative critic introduced a bill proposing the creation of a holiday in honour of Viola Desmond, the African-Nova Scotian woman who refused to leave the whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre in the 1940s.

Paris appreciated the bill, but he didn’t appreciate being excluded from its drafting.

“They don’t understand how insulting that is. I’m not gonna steal the bill!

“What I found in the House is the racist attitude of the opposition parties and their language referring back to the black community was one of ownership. One of possession.”

That was the kind of debate that was taking place in the House on the day Paris found himself alone in a bathroom with Keith Colwell — the MLA for Preston and the African Nova Scotian affairs critic for the Liberal opposition.

Moments before Paris's and Colwell's now infamous encounter in the men’s room, Colwell had demanded answers from the premier about the locations of a mobile mammography service. A list of locations was posted to the government website, but the Preston riding was not on it.

“You’re gonna have to explain to the people of my community,” started Colwell, “a black community — that’s not gonna get the service this year because it was left off the list of the government site.”

Paris was visibly upset when he stormed out of the legislature.

Colwell followed Paris into the men’s room.

“I go in the bathroom and Keith Colwell comes in. He’s standing there and I’m doing my business and I’m saying, ‘I can’t believe you, of all people, using language like that.' ”

Paris told Colwell he should know better than to use possessive language regarding a marginalized community.

According to Paris, Colwell did nothing but aggravate him while in the bathroom. Paris recalls telling Colwell, "I should slap you," and using his own arms to lower Colwell’s raised hands, as a show of strength.

“I just wanted to prove that ‘I’m stronger than you.’ So, did I touch him? I did,” he admits. “Did I have his permission to touch him? Well, no, I didn’t. I didn’t ask for his permission. I didn’t grab him by the scruff of the neck, I didn’t push him. But I did touch him. And for that, they laid charges.”

Another MLA phoned the police after the two exited the bathroom. After charges were laid, Paris resigned from cabinet the same day. The charges were later dismissed by the Crown, after Paris had completed an adult diversion program commonly offered to people who don’t have prior criminal records.

There are plenty of reasons to believe assaults between MLAs are more common than police or internal reports would suggest. The only other publicly reported assault to take place in the legislature was when Mike Laffin crossed the floor and parted a crowd to punch Paul MacEwan in the face.

It was handled internally, but no charges were laid. More on that in our next episode.

Want the full story? This article is an adapted excerpt from the weekly podcast. Listen to the episode “The white House” and subscribe to the podcast here.