Labour museum to celebrate Black History Month

A local labour museum is celebrating Black History Month by hosting an exhibit on Canadian civil rights activist and union leader James Calbert Best at the Main branch of the Ottawa Public Library.

The Workers History Museum, a virtual museum based in Ottawa, will be screening a documentary it made about his life titled Simply the Best. Afterwards, CBC anchor Adrian Harewood will moderate a panel with the filmmakers and Best’s son, Stephen.

Originally meant to be a five-minute short, the wealth of information organizers found made them decide to centre a whole exhibit on Best’s life.

“There was just more stuff,” says Arthur Carkner, project coordinator of the Cal Best exhibit. “Even at twenty minutes, we don’t really, adequately, cover some aspects of his life. For example, he’s credited as the Canadian most responsible for the immigration of the Vietnamese boat people to Canada.”

The travelling exhibit, which includes historical panels and photographs as well as the film, kicked off in Best’s home province Nova Scotia with a showing in Halifax on Feb. 6. The exhibit has since traveled to Vancouver and Calgary, and there are plans to bring it to Montreal and Toronto.

The exhibit is being funded by Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue and TD Then and Now as part of their Black History Month series.  

Cal Best spent nearly 50 years in the federal public service. During that time he worked in unions, diplomacy, and even sports portfolios. Best became Canada’s first black high commissioner, to Trinidad and Tobago, in 1985. He was also Canada’s first black assistant deputy minister, in the then-called Department of Education and Immigration, before retiring in 1990. He died in Ottawa in 2007 at the age of 81.

“Best was someone who played a very important part, not just in black history, but Canadian history,” Harewood says.

In 1958, Best helped found the Civil Service Association of Canada and became its first president. CSAC united disparate government employee associations into a single collective-bargaining entity. CSAC became the Public Service Alliance of Canada in 1966.

Best’s mother, Carrie, founded Nova Scotia’s first black-owned and -operated newspaper, The Clarion, in 1946. Best served as an editor at The Clarion as the paper struggled to publicize the case of Viola Desmond.

In the same year the paper was founded, Desmond challenged a segregated seating policy at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. She insisted on sitting in the whites-only ground floor, rather than the black-designated balcony. Cal and his mother had been kicked out of the same theatre when he was 12-years-old.  

Desmond was arrested and jailed for tax evasion because her balcony ticket didn’t cover the retail sales tax on the ground-floor ticket. It was one cent short.

Desmond challenged the verdict, but the Nova Scotia government insisted that the trial had nothing to do with the segregation policy. The conviction was not overturned until 2010, when lieutenant-governor Mayann Francis posthumously pardoned Desmond.

Best was the highest-ranking black public servant of the 60’s and 70’s, yet he remains far from a household name in Canada.

“I don’t think there’s a lot known about the civil rights movement in Canada. It didn’t have the same kind of violence associated with it as you did in the States,” says Cydney Foote, chair of the WHM’s communications committee. “It’s Canada, we have a much slower progression of cultural change. I think the way Cal Best did that, through the public service, is indicative of the Canadian character.”