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The storyteller 

Editorial by Bruce Wark

Tears stream down an old man’s face as he remembers Africville. “It was a heaven, a home, a real home,” he says of the tiny black community on the Bedford Basin that was bulldozed by the city in the 1960s. “I’ve been around this world twice. I never met a place like Africville. Never.” That poignant scene is one of several from Remember Africville, a 1991 film directed by Shelagh Mackenzie, who died last week of cancer at age 69. Mackenzie had been a vital part of Nova Scotia’s arts scene for 33 years, a silver-haired mentor, confidante and champion for the many creative people who relied on her for advice and support. On Saturday, dozens of her friends gathered at her north end home to celebrate her life and her many accomplishments, including her work on films about black, Mi’kmaq and Acadian communities; her contributions to Pier 21 exhibits honouring the million immigrants, refugees, war brides and soldiers who came here from 1928 to 1971; and her support for a wide variety of arts organizations from the Atlantic Film Festival to the Nova Scotia Coalition on Arts and Culture.

Upstairs, in the greenery of Mackenzie’s exotic plant room, Irvine Carvery, president of the Africville Genealogy Society, reminisced about the film he sees as a permanent, historic gift. “Shelagh was able to capture the essence of our people as a community in Africville after Africville,” he said. “That was very difficult to do. I don’t think anyone else could have accomplished that.” Carvery explained that Mackenzie’s intense interest in their stories won the trust of former Africville residents and so they agreed to work with her.

“She knew a good story when she heard it,” says Pat Kipping, whose film about peace activist Muriel Duckworth wouldn’t have been possible without Mackenzie’s help as associate producer. “She was a brilliant story editor. A lot of film editors now are almost technicians,” Kipping says. “Shelagh could edit a film from a really good story point of view. She was excellent at saying ‘No, that doesn’t work, get rid of that.’”

Shelagh Mackenzie moved to Halifax from Montreal in 1973 to help establish the National Film Board’s Atlantic Studio. In the years that followed, she pushed the NFB’s Montreal headquarters to support films about Atlantic Canadians whose stories weren’t being told. Filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton remembers how Mackenzie backed the idea of a film about black women shot by an all-female crew. The result was Black Mother, Black Daughter, Hamilton’s first film. “Shelagh listened to people. She listened very carefully,” Hamilton says. “In the film industry, in television and media, you often get a lot of egos that are out there on display. That was not Shelagh. In fact, she often pulled back from any recognition.”

I first met Shelagh Mackenzie 10 years ago, when we worked together to “save the CBC.” With a federal election looming, we joined a group of volunteers urging the Chretien Liberals to keep their 1993 promise to strengthen Mother Corp. Instead, the lying Liberals had slashed a third of the CBC budget, a betrayal that made me so angry I wanted to toss bricks through windows. Shelagh and I drove all over Halifax pounding in “Keep the Promise” lawn signs after residents called a special phone line ordering them. It was fun and we often laughed as our lousy sense of direction left us poring over street maps in unfamiliar parts of town. I was still angry enough, though, to help organize a street march behind a coffin labelled “CBC.” Shelagh was horrified and refused to join in. I realize now that as a female activist in a man’s world, she knew that prideful displays of adolescent anger don’t get you very far. I thought about that on Saturday as I left her memorial party and sadly stepped through her welcoming green door onto Maynard St. for the last time.

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