Skip to main content
At 21, Vanessa Hartley is a powerful voice of change in support of Black youth and causes. Today, her main focus is ending environmental racism in her hometown and ensuring every community member has access to clean drinking water.

The Black Atlantic Experience is a video series highlighting the stories, challenges, and triumphs of some of Atlantic Canada’s emerging Black leaders in order to educate and inspire a new generation. We are shining a light on a new vanguard who are changing the narrative around what is possible for the Black community, marginalized peoples, and our region as a whole.

Launching in Black History Month, the series explores the unique challenges faced by Black people in the Atlantic region, including systemic and overt racism, and will emphasize the importance and impact of addressing these issues in a real, tangible, and strategic way.

Shelburne is a rural community on Nova Scotia’s South Shore and home to about 1200 people. “It’s definitely the type of community where everyone knows everyone,” says Vanessa Hartley, who was recently chosen as the municipality’s 2021 Volunteer of the Year. While the town’s small size offers a quaintness, it can also mean a lack of resources, which has resulted in a gap of services for Black and Indigenous youth. It’s a gap that Hartley is trying to fill.

Hartley explains that as a mixed-race individual she and many others in town have never felt they have the space to grow their Black side. “Growing up, you don’t really learn about who you are,” she says. It was only when she got a job at the Black Loyalist Heritage Museum that she found out she was a descendent of Black Loyalists. “I always understood that I was Black, but until I had that job, I didn’t understand that I was a descendent of the largest Black population outside of Africa.”

Today, she’s trying to bring this history to young people in Shelburne, citing a lack of Afri-centric engagement in the town. “We don’t recognize the history in Shelburne. We take it for granted — but it’s important to talk about this as the place where the first race riot in North America happened. Shelburne is definitely a place of lost hopes and dreams for our ancestors.”

In her quest to share the knowledge, Hartley presents at schools in the area and has partnered with the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute (DBDLI) to give talks on systemic barriers for youth. She also volunteers with Q Into Action, where she develops and facilitates workshops to dismantle anti-Black racism in the justice and health systems. And as the COVID communications coordinator for the Association of Black Social Workers, Hartley delivers essential services and supplies to Black families during COVID.

From Volunteer to Leader

While she has volunteered for many years, Hartley recently found her voice as a leader for change last summer — she was one of the co-creators of a Black Lives Matter event in Shelburne, leading more than 600 people in a march for unity. “We met at a parking lot and walked a kilometre to the community centre where we knelt down for eight minutes and fifty-six seconds. I didn’t realize how long eight minutes was until I was kneeling there. It was very emotionally impactful to see everyone around me, kneeling on the ground.”

She has since taken her leadership abilities to a cause close to her heart and home as the chair of SEED. SEED, the South End Environmental Injustice Society, is a non-profit community initiative created in response to the siting of the landfill near the African Nova Scotians and working-poor community of Shelburne.

Environmental Racism — and the Fight to End It

Hartley’s father was part of SEED when it was founded, and her family’s house was once the second closest to the landfill site. When she was asked to join SEED, she learned of the environmental burden placed on African Nova Scotians and the Indigenous community in her town. “It’s very alarming and shocking that this is happening, yet a lot of people aren’t aware of what’s going on,” she explains. “Environmental racism is scary because it’s very well hidden.”

Within Nova Scotia, and across Canada, landfill sites were placed in locations considered the outskirts. “Where the people were thought of less,” says Hartley. A first-generation landfill site (defined as one without liners, where contaminants are soaked up directly by the soil), was located in Shelburne in 1949. The site was active for almost seventy years. It closed in 2016, despite a call for its closure by the Nova Scotia Environmental Department in 1996. Over the years, chemicals leached into the soil, garbage was set on fire, and well water became contaminated.

“There are a lot of people sick in this community,” says Hartley. “There is cancer, heart disease, and multiple myeloma, a rare type of blood cancer. It’s alarming that many of our elders in our community are dying from this.”

While the landfill has now been permanently closed, the town has been advised not to use the land around it because of contamination. In 2018, SEED conducted testing on the water. Of the twenty-three wells tested in the South end of Shelburne, twenty-one of them came back with high levels of coliform and e coli. Housing Nova Scotia has developed new wells, but there are still a handful of homes that still do not have clean water.

Hartley is focused on raising awareness of environmental racism, and her 10-minute video “Intercede” tackles the issue head-on. “Intercede” was an entry in Nocturne: Art at Night, an art-as-activism festival that takes place on the streets of Halifax. She is pleased that more people are taking the issue seriously — and that the group’s efforts have led to clean drinking water for many people for the first time — but acknowledges there is still a lot of work to do.

“The whole South end has never been taken care of. SEED hopes to develop a vibrant community and create a space that can be community-driven,” says Hartley. This year, she hopes to develop and expand the group, boost community involvement and build relationships with other organizations that can help move the mission forward.

By engaging and educating youth about Black history, inspiring people of all backgrounds to show unity for Black lives and by driving environmental change in her community, Vanessa Hartley is well on her way to shaping Shelburne into a town that all residents can proudly — and safely — call home.