The Halifax Forum transformed itself into a concert hall on Saturday afternoon for Halifax United, a public event aimed at solidarity and community among community groups.
Families with young children sat huddled on the floor, people bearing fresh groceries from the farmer’s market next door shuffled in, and musicians with big bass guitars gathered for an afternoon of song, dance, poetry and discussion.
“The theme of the day is unity, but for me, my secret theme of the day is freedom of speech,” Paul Vienneau said in an interview before Saturday’s event.
Vienneau, a photographer and activist for people with disabilities, organized Halifax United 2017, a free event dedicated to bringing people of different communities together in response to what he views as a hateful political climate.
He said it was heartbreaking to learn that his friend’s daughter was called a racial slur.
“We all live in the same society, so when people are hurting my instinct is to try to do something to help,” said Vienneau.
Halifax United featured musical acts, spoken word performances, poetry and dancing. The lineup included Mi’kmaq dancer Trevor Gould, Halifax’s poet laureate Rebecca Thomas and spoken word artist El Jones.
“It’s not just you hold a concert and racism ends,” Jones said in an interview before the event. “What it’s about is bringing communities together, letting people see each other, giving people a space together, so that’s where community building starts.”
Masuma Khan was also invited to speak. She’s a Dalhousie University student council executive who made a Facebook post earlier this year about Canada’s colonial history in light of Canada 150. Another student accused Khan of discriminating against white people, and the university has put Khan’s comments under investigation.
Khan said Halifax United is important because it allows people to see each other on a human level.
“You don’t really see it as Masuma Khan the human being; you see it as Masuma Khan who says this. For me, it’s more about seeing me on a human level, seeing me as I am,” said Khan.
Vienneau also stressed the importance of seeing people in person.
“If they don’t see people like El or Masuma talk in person, then El and Masuma continue to be cartoons that are easy to attack because ‘look at them, they’re talking about white people,’” Vienneau said. “You can’t acknowledge someone’s humanity without looking them in the eye.”
Vienneau wanted to focus on free speech so he gave each performer free reign to talk about whatever they wanted.
Jones called the event a fun afternoon.
“A lot of the times we have very serious events so I think it’s just good for people to relax, to let loose, to listen to music and have a good time,” she said.
Vienneau said Halifax United received hate mail leading up to the event from anonymous senders who claimed that Halifax United is anti-white. Despite that, he plans on making this an annual event.
The event was free because Vienneau wanted to encourage people from any background to attend. Baked goods were provided, but a donation was suggested. Money went to the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, which provides women’s housing and outreach for women in prison.
For Vienneau, bringing people together in friendship is a way to relieve some of the pain he’s witnessed around him.
“For me, it makes me feel better to know that everyone’s cool.”