History of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission

The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission is committed to protecting and advancing human rights for all Nova Scotians. The context for this work is built upon the foundational advocacy of Nova Scotians who sought equality, fairness, justice and greater equity and inclusion. Knowledge of those who contributed to the implementation of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act is crucial for the Commission and all Nova Scotians. It is important to know this history so we can honour and advance the work of those who came before us.

Dr. Gordon Earle

Gordon Earle served as the first employee of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission as Chief Human Rights Officer wherein he drafted the province’s first Human Rights Act. A senior civil servant, Earle also held the positions of assistant to the Ombudsman in Nova Scotia and became Canada’s first Black Ombudsman when he was appointed Ombudsman in Manitoba in 1982. He was appointed Nova Scotia’s first Black Deputy Minister and would go on to become the first Black Member of Parliament elected in Nova Scotia. He successfully advocated for a public inquiry into abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children and he was one of the first to call upon the federal government to apologize for the racist treatment of No. 2 Construction Battalion members during and following their service in the First World War.


This account is adapted from “Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission” (Wikipedia).

In 1940, Dr. William Oliver volunteered with the Department of Education to improve the circumstances of ethnic minorities in Nova Scotia. After five years, he was hired with the Department. In 1946, the Viola Desmond case galvanized the civil rights movement in Nova Scotia. According to founding Commissioner Fred MacKinnon, Dr. Oliver spent these years, “organizing and promoting self-help in the Black communities of the province but, even more importantly, he did much to advance public support and understanding in and out of government in respect to the social and economic plight of Black Nova Scotians.”

In 1955, the Fair Employment Practices Act was passed followed by the Equal Pay Act of 1956. Both acts were designed to prevent discrimination in the workplace. Robert Stanfield was elected Premier in 1956 and made human rights, particularly for Black Nova Scotians, a priority during his next eleven years as premier. In 1959, the assembly passed the Fair Accommodation Practices Act to guard against discrimination in public spaces. Stanfield reports that, "Clearly more than a declaration of equality was required. More than the passage of Laws against discrimination would be necessary before Blacks achieved real equality and clearly years of concerted effort would be necessary."

In 1962, Premier Stanfield created and led the Interdepartmental Committee on Human Rights. The committee's mandate was to encourage the work of Dr. William Oliver in the Black communities and the new Social Development Program. According to Fred MacKinnon, without Premier Stanfield's “prodding, goading and encouraging” government into action, “Human Rights legislation might not have been introduced for at least another decade.” The Premier codified and extended earlier legislation in the first Human Rights Act of 1963. The government established the “Education fund for Negros” in 1965. While Premier Stanfield went into federal politics in 1967, he and Dr. Oliver had laid the foundation for the Human Rights Commission to be established in that same year. Others who supported the early development of the Human Rights Commission included Donald Oliver, Gus Wedderburn, Carrie Best and Delmore Buddy Daye. The Commission would later hire Gordon Earle as its first employee.

The Commission quickly introduced wide-ranging legislative amendments to the Human Rights Act, “making the Nova Scotia legislation the strongest and most comprehensive of its kind in Canada.” The Commission provided funds for Dr. Oliver's newest organization, the Black United Front and sponsored a two-day workshop with activist Saul Alinsky.

In 1967, the Commission's explicit purpose was to challenge discrimination on racial, religious and ethnic grounds. In 1991, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act and the Commission significantly broadened its mandate to include the following protected characteristics: Aboriginal Origin, Age, Family Status (the status of being in a parent and child relationship), Irrational Fear of Contracting an Illness (for example, to protect people living with HIV/AIDS adequately), Marital Status, Political Affiliation, Sex, Pregnancy, Sexual Harassment, Sex (Sexual Orientation). The Act was further amended in 2012 to provide protections based on gender identity and gender expression.

Donald Marshall Jr. Prosecution Inquiry

In 1971 17-year-old Donald Marshall Jr., a L’nu from Membertou, was wrongfully convicted of the murder of a young Black man, Sandy Seale, in Sydney's Wentworth Park. In 1982, after serving 11 years in prison, Marshall was released based on the review of evidence not considered when he was convicted. The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal concluded that “no reasonable jury could, on that evidence, find Donald Marshall Jr.  guilty of the murder”. 

In 1986, four years after Donald Marshall’s acquittal, a Royal Commission was instituted to examine all phases of this case. As part of its mandate, the Royal Commission examined the process of administration of justice in Nova Scotia and the systemic interplay of all those involved – the Minister of Justice, crown prosecutors, defense council and the police.  To substantiate Donald Marshall’s experience, the Royal Commission also examined the inequity of experience of racialized individuals when interacting with the justice system. At the conclusion of its work, the Royal Commission outlined its findings in a seven-volume report with recommendations. Two of these recommendations were directed towards the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission:

Recommendation 31 – Amendments to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act:

  • an annual report of the Commission's activities be submitted to the Minister who shall place the report before the Legislative Assembly
  • those parts of the justice system under provincial jurisdiction are included in the Act's coverage;
  • where the Commission is unable to settle a complaint, and where the Commission recommends the appointment of a Board, it shall report to the Minister who shall appoint a Board of Inquiry;
  • establish within the Commission a Race Relations Division reporting to the Commission through one or more members, at least one of whom shall be full time and designated as Race Relations Commissioner.

Recommendation 32 – Funding for Human Rights Commission:

  • The Human Rights Commission be provided with sufficient resources to enable it to effectively carry out its present mandate and further responsibilities added by our recommendations, and in particular to enable it:
    • to retain independent legal counsel; and
    • to engage in an active public awareness program, particularly in the area of Native and Black concerns.

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