02/20/2013 02:11 EST | Updated 04/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia: Canada's Mighty Hub of the Diaspora

For 29 years, African Heritage has been celebrated each February in Nova Scotia. As home to one of the oldest African Heritage Month celebrations in the country, Nova Scotia is honouring its historic communities this year with the theme Then and Now: Our Journey Continues.

Though Nova Scotia isone of Canada's smallest provinces, the roots of people of African descent are well established here, with many such families having been in Nova Scotia for more than six generations.The history of African Nova Scotians reaches back to the early founding years of the province. Many of today's communities can trace their origins to centuries ago, when Nova Scotia held the promise of a better life for immigrants of African descent.

Explorer Mathieu Da Costa is credited with being the first to arrive as part of an expedition that founded Port Royal in 1605. In the 1700s, small populations of French and English Black settlers were part of colonial towns such as Louisbourg and early Halifax.

The first large group of immigrants were the Black Loyalists who came as refugees after the American Revolution between 1782 and 1785. About 3,500 people settled throughout Nova Scotia in communities such as Annapolis Royal, Clements, Granville, Birchtown, Brindleytown, Preston, Little Tracadie, Chedabucto and Halifax. A group of 600 exiled Jamaican Maroons followed in 1796, settling in Preston Township. They helped build Government House, worked on new fortifications at the Halifax Citadel and served in the militia.

The War of 1812 between the United States and Britain brought another era of significant migration. Promised freedom and land grants if they came over to the British side, many enslaved Black Americans seized the opportunity to escape the plantations in the southern United States and entered into battle to bravely fight alongside the British.

Roughly 2,000 Black refugees seeking freedom arrived in Nova Scotia between 1813 and 1816. Many settled in Nova Scotia's capital city of Halifax and sister city Dartmouth, including two large groups in Hammonds Plains and Preston. Others went to smaller communities around the province such as Cobequid Road, Five Mile Plains, Beechville, Porter's Lake, Fletcher's Lake, Prospect Road, Beaverbank, Avonport, Pine Woods, Pictou and Mill Village.

The early 1900s saw the last historic group of Black settlers arrive in Nova Scotia as hundreds of Caribbean immigrants, known as the "later arrivals," came to Cape Breton to work in the steel mills and coal mines.

Most of those communities still exist today, but history has not always been kind to African Nova Scotians. In the 1960s the community of Africville was torn down in the name of urban development against the wishes of the community. Its people were relocated to some of the poorest parts of Halifax with little money and no plan for the future. In 2010, the city issued an apology to the residents of Africville, and Seaview African United Baptist Church, which had been the pillar of the community before it was demolished, was rebuilt.

Some of the province's most celebrated heroes were those who stood up to adversity.

Leaders like Minister Richard Preston (1791-1861), who came to Nova Scotia from Virginia in 1816 to look for his mother, a refugee who escaped slavery during the War of 1812. He went on to become a key spiritual leader in the province and a founder of the African United Baptist Association in 1854.

William Hall (1827-1904) was the first Nova Scotian and the first person of African descent to receive the Victoria Cross. He was also the third Canadian to receive the honour. His portrait hangs in Nova Scotia's provincial legislature and a painting commemorating his heroic actions during the Siege of Lucknow was installed in Government House in 2011.

Viola Desmond (1914-1965) was a Halifax native who was arrested for refusing to move from a whites only section of a movie theatre in 1945, nine years before Rosa Parks made her heroic stand that sparked the civil rights movement.

These are only a few examples of African Nova Scotians who overcame the odds to create a better life for future generations.

And things are better for African Nova Scotians today because of their contributions. But there is still work to do. According to the 2006 census, African Nova Scotians have a higher unemployment rate than the rest of Nova Scotians and the gap is greater for men. There is also a higher percentage of African Nova Scotian low-income families compared to the rest of the province. African Nova Scotians are less likely to finish high school or attend university, though the gap is steadily getting smaller.

There are a number of programs that exist today to help address these challenges. African Nova Scotian Affairs (ANSA) was created to in 2004 to promote cultural understanding, raise awareness of priorities important to communities and support issues that need be addressed. Its programs are designed to celebrate communities and provide support in the areas of employment, education, justice and health. There are also many African Nova Scotian community agencies dedicated to improving the African Nova Scotian experience. African Nova Scotians are starting to be represented in every profession as doctors, lawyers, Members of the Legislative Assembly and Lieutenant Governor. Trailblazers, such as the late Daurene Lewis, business woman, educator and former mayor, have paved the way for more African Nova Scotians to follow.

African Heritage continues to shine. This year there are more than 75 events throughout the province celebrating African Heritage Month, with most being organized on a community level. They celebrate culture and history, food and family, song and togetherness, and hope for a bright future.

With a history that spans more than 400 years, African Nova Scotians have a rich legacy in the province. Strong communities established long ago continue to this day. The achievements and triumphs of ancestors endure as a great source of pride and inspiration for African Nova Scotians. Learn more at