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African Nova Scotian school support workers walk the picket line on Black Excellence Day in Halifax

Black Excellence Day is a day to highlight the achievements of African Nova Scotian students, but amid the CUPE strike, African Nova Scotian student support workers were unable to attend their schools' celebrations on Monday.  (Submitted by AJ Simmonds - image credit)
Black Excellence Day is a day to highlight the achievements of African Nova Scotian students, but amid the CUPE strike, African Nova Scotian student support workers were unable to attend their schools' celebrations on Monday. (Submitted by AJ Simmonds - image credit)

Schools in the province marked the second annual Black Excellence Day on Monday, but African Nova Scotian student support workers in Halifax weren't part of it.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees represents 60 African Nova Scotian student support workers in the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE). They're among more than 1,800 support workers in CUPE Local 5047 who walked off their jobs in the Halifax area last week demanding higher wages than those accepted by other CUPE workers elsewhere in the province.

Black Excellence Day was established in Nova Scotia in 2022 to highlight the achievements of students with African ancestry across the province.

"Our kids are missing out on one of the most important days of their lives," said AJ Simmonds, an African Nova Scotian student support worker at Cole Harbour District High School and Sir Robert Borden Junior High School.

He and his students had a big day planned, he said, which included guest speakers and presentations.

African Nova Scotian student support workers are part of a program that aims to strengthen African Nova Scotian students by recognizing historic discrimination and providing role models

Submitted by AJ Simmonds
Submitted by AJ Simmonds

It's important for these support workers to be present and in the building for students, Simmonds said. "It's someone in the building that looks like them."

"It affects them in a big way," he said, because the students rely on their support workers.

"We can't advocate for our students because we're not there … my students are reaching out to me. They're coming out and standing on the picket lines with me," he said.

Some of his students are graduating this year and he can't help them apply for bursaries and scholarships and to go on university tours while he's on strike.

Phenrick Marshall is another African Nova Scotian student support worker. He works at Ian Forsyth Elementary and Shannon Park Elementary in Dartmouth, N.S.

He said support staff go above and beyond to ensure students feel welcomed by their presence in the school building. He's upset he couldn't be with them Monday.

"Today was unfortunate for myself as a Black man and for our students that we represent on a regular basis," he said. "It really was disappointing, frustrating."

Some of his students also joined the picket line.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

"They were quite upset and saddened that we weren't able to attend and be part of [Black Excellence Day]," he said. "It really was disheartening not to be in the building, to be present, to be a part of a program that we normally celebrate to the highest level."

He said that in lieu of the celebrations in schools, he and other strikers wore black and gold to honour the day. Black and gold are worn to represent royalty.

Schools weight in

Steve Gallagher, the HRCE's regional executive director, said in a statement that Black Excellence Day across HRCE won't be the same without the presence of African Nova Scotian Student Support Workers. Gallagher asked schools to take time to learn and celebrate the contributions of Black Excellence on Monday.

"We look forward to welcoming them back and continuing our celebration of their Black Excellence," he said.

Marshall said although support staff are absent, he has set a high standard for his students and he hopes they will continue their hard work throughout the strike.

"I expect them to still be students and still be great students and still be Black excellence," he said.

"Our role is very important to the school system and I hope that government understands that, and I hope that reflects in our pay."

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