LOZANO email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2007-10-04 published
Inspired to overcome racism, he became Canada's first black high commissioner
In Nova Scotia, he started an influential newspaper. In Ottawa, he became an important player in the civil service
By Allison LAWLOR, Special to The Globe and Mail, Page S9
Halifax -- A career public servant who broke race barriers on his way to becoming Canada's first black high commissioner, James Calbert BEST didn't see himself as an activist.
The only son of a spirited human-rights defender and a quiet railway porter, Mr. BEST, who was best known as Cal, entered the civil service as a young man in the late 1940s after he and his mother started Nova Scotia's first black newspaper.
In 1946, while still a university student in Halifax, he and his mother Carrie BEST, began publishing The Clarion. Aside from covering local news, sports and social happenings, the paper took on deeper racial issues facing black people in Nova Scotia and across North America.
"The town [New Glasgow] has a daily and weekly newspaper, but the publication that creates the most talk on the street is The Clarion, that has grown from a church bulletin to the most powerful Negro newspaper in Canada today," Will R. Bird wrote in his 1950 book, This is Nova Scotia.
Mr. BEST and his mother used their newspaper to publicize the case of a black Nova Scotian named Viola Desmond. In 1946, Ms. Desmond, who has been referred to as a Canadian Rosa Parks, was arrested and fined for sitting in the "whites only" section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow.
"We do have many of the privileges which are denied our southern brothers, but we often wonder if the kind of segregation we receive here is not more cruel in the very subtlety of its nature. Nowhere do we encounter signs that read 'No Colored' or the more diplomatic little paste boards which say 'Select Clientele,' but at times it might be better. At least much consequent embarrassment might be saved for all concerned," Mr. BEST wrote after Ms. Desmond's arrest. The Clarion ceased publication in 1956.
Years before Ms. Desmond's case, Mr. BEST and his mother experienced a similar incident in a New Glasgow movie theatre. While sitting downstairs in the whites-only section, as they often did, management told them to go to the balcony. They were told that someone had complained. After refusing to move, they were evicted and the police were called. They were charged with disturbing the peace and eventually convicted and fined. They sued for loss of dignity, but lost.
"I wouldn't want this [experience] to be seen as colouring his life. I heard about this incident once in my life," said his daughter, Christene BEST. "It inspired him more than anything else. To get out of New Glasgow and to thumb his nose at anyone who thought he wasn't deserving of 'loss of dignity.' "
Born in 1926, Mr. BEST grew up on South Washington Street in what was considered an integrated part of New Glasgow. While the legal segregation of Nova Scotia's schools didn't end until 1954, long after he completed his education, Mr. BEST never spoke about the racism he must have faced growing up in a small, industrial town.
"My grandmother considered herself an activist; my father didn't," his daughter said.
While his mother was busy organizing protests or holding poetry readings to raise money to help pay a black family's taxes, Mr. BEST spent his time as a child playing baseball or hockey on the pond behind their house.
He identified more with his father Albert, a man he called "the kindest, gentlest man I've ever known." As a child, he loved to run down to the railway station when he knew his father was returning home after days away.
After high school, Mr. BEST headed to the bustling wartime city of Halifax. Having a thyroid condition, he was unable to serve in the military. In 1948, he graduated with a degree in political science and a diploma in journalism from the University of King's College and went on to postgraduate work in public administration. He initially believed that the only careers open to a young black man in Nova Scotia were in teaching or on the railway, but his mind changed when he saw an advertisement for junior positions in the public service. In 1949, he boarded the train with his father and headed to Ottawa to begin what would become a 49-year career as a senior public servant and, eventually, high commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago.
"It was exceedingly difficult to get into the public service if you were a person of colour" in the 1940s, said Senator Don Oliver, a former Halifax lawyer. "At a time when racism was rampant in the public service, he was able to virtually move to the top. Soon, people forgot to look at his colour."
When Mr. BEST arrived in Ottawa, he found few people who looked like him. In the Department of Labour, he may have been the only black person. It wasn't much different on the street. While riding the bus, he was occasionally asked how the Ottawa Rough Riders were doing that season - the assumption being that because he was black, he played football.
Nevertheless, he found postwar Ottawa exciting. The civil service was growing rapidly and Mr. BEST quickly became an important player in its development.
The same year he arrived in Ottawa, Mr. BEST met his future wife at a party and declared that "she was the prettiest girl I've ever met." In 1957, he and Doreen PHILLS married in Montreal and later had four children.
At the Department of Labour, Mr. BEST co-founded the Civil Service Association of Canada, which evolved into the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and served as its first president, from 1957 to 1966. "He played a huge role in bringing collective bargaining to the public service," said Patty Ducharme, Public Service Alliance of Canada's national executive vice-president.
In creating the organization, Mr. BEST used his diplomacy and strong negotiating skills to bring together two existing associations representing civil servants and to defuse the power struggles that threatened the new organization.
"He was such a dynamic person; such an intellectual," said Daryl Bean, a former Public Service Alliance of Canada president. "His influence and calming approach allowed for good debate. He seemed to be three steps ahead of most people."
After leaving the labour department, Mr. BEST served as a director in both the Office of the Comptroller of Treasury and the Department of Supply and Services before becoming assistant deputy minister in the Department of Manpower and Immigration in 1970. In 1978, he became executive director of immigration and demographic policy, holding that position until 1985.
In late 1978, he worked closely with minister Bud Cullen to relax immigration laws to bring about 600 Vietnamese refugees, who were stranded in Malaysian water aboard the tiny freighter Hai Hong, to Canada. Mr. BEST travelled to Asia to help process the boat people. One of the refugees painted a picture of him arriving on a boat with a Canadian flag.
In 1985, Mr. BEST was appointed Canadian high commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago. He retired after returning to Canada in 1988, but his public service continued. "He was incredibly proud to serve. He would always say, 'The Canadian people pay my salary,' Ms. BEST said. He was such a scrupulous civil servant that his daughter never knew how her father voted politically until after he retired.
Mr. BEST was appointed chair of a federal task force to look into the future of sports in Canada after the Ben Johnson steroid scandal. In 1992, the three-person task force produced the report "Sport - the Way Ahead." The report, which cost a reported $1-million to produce, was intended to be a guideline for the future development of sport in Canada. Among the recommendations were that Ottawa fund fewer sport agencies.
"He was the tall, silent type," said Lyle Makosky, a former assistant deputy minister of fitness and amateur sport, who recruited Mr. BEST for the task force. "He was an imposing man but he had a quiet gentleness about him."
Mr. BEST later conducted an investigation into allegations of racism involving the Canadian men's national basketball team. head coach Ken Shields was alleged to have been prejudiced against black players. Mr. BEST's investigation absolved Mr. Shields. In 1999, he served on another task force, this one looking into the participation of visible minorities in the federal public service.
"When he talked, you always knew he had something important to say," Mr. Makosky said.
For his work, Mr. BEST was awarded an honorary law degree from the University of King's College, where he served on the board of governors.
James Calbert BEST was born July 12, 1926, in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia He died of cancer in Ottawa on July 30, 2007. He was 81. Predeceased by his wife Doreen, he leaves his children Christene, Jamie, Stephen and Kevin; five grandchildren, close friend Suzanne LOZANO and foster sisters Berma and Sharon MARSHALL.
L... Names LO... Names LOZ... Names Welcome Home
LOZANO - All Categories in OGSPI