Black in Halifax: Coun. Lindell Smith speaks up about standing out at City Hall
Halifax's lone Black councillor says he knows what he signed up for, but it's not always easy.
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There are things Lindell Smith has to think about that other councillors just don’t.
He fields emails and calls that other councillors don’t find in their inboxes. And there’s a pressure weighing on him that other councillors can’t imagine.
But ask the 27-year-old how his first year in the job went, and he’ll tell you he has no complaints.
“I’m not trying to brush it off; I knew what I was signing up for,” Smith said in a recent interview. “I love being out in the community, engaging people, learning, so I don’t complain.”
Smith won the District 8 seat on council in 2016 with a majority of the vote after the area’s former councillor Jennifer Watts encouraged him to run. He became the first Black councillor in Halifax in 16 years and only the second since amalgamation in 1996.
“I thought becoming a political figure in this city would be ridiculous for a young Black man from a low-income community,” Smith said. “You psych yourself out coming from a marginalized community that that’s not possible, but it is possible.”
Smith tries not to think about the expectations put on him but he’s certainly aware of them.
“The media attention at the beginning was hard to look past. The pressure. Being on national stages,” he said. “I remember getting two emails: one from Australia and one from Zimbabwe, where these people said, ‘You’re going to be the hope for Canada.'"
He recognizes he’s become a “figure for the Black community in a government role” — a result of a serious lack of Black politicians in the province. It’s not a burden he’s willing to take on by himself but he does feel a responsibility to make a difference.
“It is pressure, and I know I have the magnifying glass on me, and I may deliver and I may not, but as long as I try to stay true to what I want, I’m not gonna fold on it,” he said.
Halifax’s youngest councillor is still learning, trying to find his groove.
“As a young man, that’s hard because I’m around mostly older white men. But also as a young Black man, that has another stigma that people think that you’re only going to represent what you look like. That took some time to get past,” he said.
When he goes to events in some areas, Smith sometimes feels out of place – a feeling his colleagues don’t share.
“As a Black man, those are just things to think about. Stand a certain way. Don’t put my hands in my pockets," he said.
There are the off-hand comments, brushed off as “excitement.”
“There have been times where I’ve had people say, ‘Your people must be so happy for you’ … You know what they mean by that. And I take all those moments as learning moments,” he said.
And there are the calls and emails.
“I could tell you all the different things that have happened regarding race, not with council but with people, like residents calling and sending emails, but to me that’s not important,” he said. “I don’t even like to put light on it.”
Smith is patient. He likes to give people a chance and assume it’s ignorance, not bigotry, fuelling their comments.
“I don’t need to hold a grudge,” he said. “I want to focus my energy on the good things.”
One of those learning moments in the last year involved a fellow councillor. Matt Whitman used the word “negroes” during a television interview and later apologized in council chambers.
On Twitter, Smith told his colleague the word he used was inappropriate and that “we are not in 1950.” He felt the point hit home, but there’s more work to do.
“For me it’s the long term,” he said. “What are we going to do as a council to address the long-term issues of discrimination and race and proper behaviour of elected officials?”
Council eventually agreed on group cultural sensitivity training as a response to complaints from the public on the issue.
Smith, who has facilitated similar sensitivity workshops, is hopeful it will make a difference.
“Is it going to be beneficial for me to be in that room? I don’t know, maybe it will be,” he said. “I really hope it is, and I really hope other councillors take that moment to learn about other people.”
Focusing his energy on the good things means Smith is trying to make some change in his second year on council, hoping to strengthen the municipality's social responsibilites on issues like poverty and housing.
And it means making time for his eight-year-old daughter, Jahtaya, who has a burgeoning interest in politics.
“She, for some reason, is very interested in council,” Smith said. “She wants to know. That’s also a blessing, to be able to share that knowledge with a little person, and who knows what she’ll do."
Smith said he misses producing music, his "outlet," and working as the Halifax North Memorial Public Library’s community library assistant.
“But the issue there was I was only focusing on a small demographic. Which is great, which is needed, but the way that I think is, I want to help everybody.”
He fills the void now by stopping in at the library or community groups just to hang out and by visiting schools to pass on more knowledge to more little people. It’s there that Smith finds his motivation.
“There was a kid who, the last school I visited, he came up to me — and I didn’t even have words — he came up to me and he said, ‘I want to do what you do when I get older,’” Smith said.
“Those are the moments that doing this job pays off. All the calls on cats and streets and speeding, which I care about, but to have a kid who doesn’t care about any of that stuff right now say, ‘I wanna do what you do,’ it’s like, this is worth it.”
This story is part of Metro's ongoing Black in Halifax series. Let us know your thoughts on the series, and share your own stories using the hashtag #HalifaxWhileBlack with tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook comments. We may just share it in a future edition.