Human rights veteran recalls
Chronicle Herald - Borovoy visited Halifax in 1962 to offer help
Feb 28, 2010
He’s carved a national reputation as a hard-working human rights advocate, but Alan Borovoy’s long career was in its infancy decades ago when he accepted an assignment that sent him to Halifax’s Africville district.
So how did a young white lawyer from Toronto end up advising a long-standing yet struggling black community three provinces away?
Now 77, Borovoy recently took a break from his duties to look back at the Africville fight of the 1960s and reflect on the community.
Situated in north-end Halifax, the historic black district was demolished more than 40 years ago and its residents relocated.
Though he acknowledged he’s not familiar with details of the multimillion-dollar redress package announced here last week, Borovoy, former general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said anytime parties with strained race relations can bury the hatchet, that’s a good thing.
» Click here for the city's collection of Africville archives
"There’s something welcome in the fact that you have two communities reaching out to each other and trying to make amends for a pretty sorry history," he said by phone from Toronto.
During the summer of 1962, Borovoy was the Ontario director for the Labour Committee for Human Rights, an anti-racism outfit sponsored by organized labour. One day, the group’s national director contacted him from his office in Montreal.
"He got in touch with me about a letter he had received from some Africville residents asking for our help," recalled Borovoy. So his boss dispatched him to the East Coast.
"I was the best man on staff," Borovoy said facetiously. "I was also the worst one. I was the only one," he said with a laugh.
A self-described professional dirt-disturber, Borovoy travelled to Halifax and wound up organizing black and white activists. Meetings were set up in his hotel room, and later inside Africville’s Seaview United Baptist Church, to address the community’s plight.
Borovoy said he was in Halifax for three or four days, going over the neighbourhood’s concerns and sharing his knowledge of civil rights.
In taking up their cause, he said he got to know several Africville residents, whom he described as proud people living in substandard conditions. Building a trust with the locals wasn’t really an issue, he said.
"Unlike other situations, where activists go into a community, I was invited," said Borovoy. "They asked for our help. So there was much more of a response right from the outset."
Then, back in Toronto, Borovoy kept in touch with his Halifax allies. The Africville situation remained on the eastern front of Canada’s human rights battle.
"There was some back and forth. There were letters and discussions about various things where I tried to be helpful," Borovoy said. "But then, years and years later, our connection with it just eroded over time."
According to the Africville Genealogy Society, 1962 was "a pivotal year" in the Africville story. And the group’s website acknowledges the contribution Borovoy made to the community on the human rights front back then.
By August, "Africville residents were encouraged to organize and continue to meet to discuss their rights by A. Alan Borovoy, a lawyer with the Canadian Labour Congress," it says.
"He visited and met with a number of Africville residents, resulting in the organization of a white-black political alliance — the Halifax Human Rights Advisory Committee."
It was a period in history when anti-racism activists in Nova Scotia were influenced by the well-publicized civil rights movement in the U.S. Alliances were made, especially in the United States, between blacks and Jews fighting for the rights of African-Americans.
The two minority groups may have different histories yet they share something terrible in their heritage — oppression, and being rounded up for execution.
Borovoy, who’s Jewish, is well aware of the freedom-fighting connection but said that didn’t really come into play during his Africville days.
"I have no recollection of anybody on the black side particularly mentioning, or invoking, my Jewish background," he said. "I just don’t think it came up as a relevant factor in any of our dealings."
But he does remember one Africville resident in particular. She was a community leader at the time, Borovoy said fondly, and phone calls kept them in touch.
"On the telephone, I said, ‘It’s Alan Borovoy.’ "
"And she said, ‘Bless my ears.’ "
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