AMHERST, N.S. – If you see a friend, co-worker or colleague being treated unfairly will you step up to defend them?
Jason MacLean hopes so.
MacLean, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), was recently the keynote speaker at a dinner hosted by the Cumberland African Nova Scotian Association (CANSA) at the Community Credit Union Business innovation Centre in Amherst.
MacLean got his feet wet as a corrections officer more than 20 years ago at the Cumberland Correctional Facility in Amherst.
While working there, he met Amherst’s Brian Martin. Martin worked at the correctional facility for 30 years. He is now the chair of CANSA and attended the CANSA dinner.
MacLean talked about how Martin got him interested in the NSGEU.
“I worked with Brian at the Cumberland Correctional Facility, and on my first day of work he looked at me and he said, ‘are you going to the union meeting tomorrow night?’
I said, ‘I’m part of a union?’
And he said, ‘yes, you better be there.”
MacLean attended the meeting.
“That was the first thing that made me feel good about the NSGEU,” said MacLean. “It was inclusive, and it was good to see an African Nova Scotian as a leader in the union and working at the Cumberland Correctional facility.”
He said he had many positive experiences in Amherst, finding ‘nearly no obstacles’ in making Amherst his home.
After Amherst, MacLean, who is originally from Whitney Pier, was stationed in Sydney.
“I’m sad to say I had a much different experience when I moved back home to Cape Breton,” said MacLean. “I had a hard time in the workplace. Some of my co-workers treated me differently than others. It was because of my race.”
In one incident, an inmate was hurling racial slurs at him and MacLean tried to have him locked up and punished.
“One of my co-workers told me, ‘you’re supposed to take that.’ I didn’t think that was fair.”
He says he became lost and angry and acted out against some of his co-workers until he was approached by two people who wanted to help advocate for him.
“They happened to be union activists, and I wanted to show my appreciation of what they did by helping others,” said MacLean. “That was the second thing that brought me to feel warm about the NSGEU and its inclusiveness.”
Growing up in Whitney Pier, MacLean didn’t have negative feelings towards the police.
“In fact, our local police force had a number of African Nova Scotian officers and they were visible in the community and had a lot of great outreach.”
His relationship with police has become more complicated in recent years.
In 2015, he was at a protest at the Nova Scotia provincial legislature where the police picked him out of the crowd, grabbed him, pushed him face down on the sidewalk, handcuffed his hands behind his back, and charged him with assaulting a police officer. The entire incident was captured on video.
“I was happy to have that recorded because my career would have been over as a correctional officer and I may have been on the unemployment line. It only got overturned because there was no evidence.”
Last year he was driving in downtown Halifax during the morning rush hour, when police pulled a U-turn and pulled him over.
“I thought they were going to an emergency but it turns out I was the emergency,” said MacLean. “They pulled me over and asked for my license and registration and, ultimately, said they pulled me over because of my tint on my truck. That’s how the truck was bought.”
They didn’t give MacLean a ticket and let him go.
“It was quite interesting, I have to point out to you, it was the same officer who arrested me at the legislature.”
This past January he was at the casino in Halifax when there was an incident at a table.
“I was talking to the pit boss, there was an issue there, and I asked for the police to be called. The police came in and they arrested me,” said MacLean. “Again, I was forcibly taken down to the lockup. I was released with no charges, no tickets, no anything.”
The experience left a bad taste in his mouth with regards to the casino.
“Now, I can’t go and hang out at the casino because when I’m confronted I’m not afforded the same courtesy that somebody else might be afforded.”
MacLean talked about ‘White Privilege,’ at the dinner, a term he doesn’t like to use.
In 2012, while at a labour leaders meeting at the Labour College of Canada, MacLean was taken aside and asked to talk about white privilege.
“We gave this talk on white privilege, and all hell broke loose at the presentation,” said MacLean. “I thought about what failed. It was because, when I said ‘white privilege’ people got their backs up and got defensive over the situation, saying, ‘you’re accusing me of having privilege.’”
He now uses the term ‘Privilege.”
“Now I don’t talk about white privilege because we all carry a certain amount of privilege around with us every day,” said MacLean. “I myself carry a certain amount of privilege. Walking around the province I am recognizable and those that recognize me treat me differently than those who don’t recognize me.”
He hopes people recognized their privilege and he hopes they spread it to others.
“You need own it, to be proud of what you have, and advocate for others to have what you have,” said MacLean.
He said part of advocating for others is making sure others are treated fairly.
“If you feel you’re a fair-minded person and you’re all about fairness then when you see something unfair happening, it’s hard to do, but speak up. Say, ‘you know what, I don’t appreciate that,’” said MacLean. “The ones that do not want to be fair to others, they won’t be like that around you anymore. Trust me, that is something I learned a long time ago. They’ll keep it to the people who want to enable and want to keep the unfairness going.”