Theresa Halfkenny has the type of effervescent personality that is terribly contagious. Her gracious enthusiasm and good humour could instantly cheer up anyone who’s trapped in the doldrums of winter.
That winning attitude and demeanour translates into living an accomplished, happy life, which she credits to having “a golden touch with opportunity.”
Born and raised in Dorchester, New Brunswick, Theresa is the youngest of 10 children.
“We were the only Black family in town, but I had a normal childhood. I was never held back [because of my race],” she explained. “When I went to Moncton for nursing school there were few Blacks, still I experienced no problems. None at all.”
It was not until she married, moved to Amherst and started volunteering with the Black United Front that Theresa began to hear stories about racism and inequality from her peers.
“The stories they shared were a shock,”she said. “I hadn’t experienced anything like that. I stood back, listened, and
“I think,” she joked, “that this is where I got my good listening skills.”
But it wasn’t long after that Theresa felt the sting of racism first-hand. After several years spent working as a nurse, Theresa joined the federal public service and enjoyed a 25 year tenure with Service Canada.
Her voice grew incredulous as she relayed the now decades old story: “I was at my desk labelling files when a counsellor called me ‘Buckwheat,’” she said. “I was so shocked I asked her to repeat herself.”
“I didn’t know how to react. I was only a term and I wanted a full-time position.”
After a lot of thought, Theresa chose to confront the counsellor. She counsellor apologized, explained that she was only joking and offered to buy Theresa coffee to make things up to her.
“I told her, ‘I don’t want a damn thing from you.’ After that day, I could more easily identify those subtleties.”
But, Theresa was able to bounce back from that experience and became the first woman of African descent to serve on Amherst town council. From there, she became a volunteer at Autumn House (an Amherst area women’s shelter) and now serves as secretary on the Cumberland African Nova Scotian Association’s board of directors.
“I always like to be busy, to be current and to try to make things better.”
She says our children motivate her and explains that because of the small African Nova Scotian population in Amherst that it can be difficult to raise awareness of the community’s heritage — especially among youth.
“There’s an identity crisis in our youth,”she said. “As families become more blended, children develop lighter skin.... and they’re hesitant to become involved.”
Calling on personal experience, Theresa continued, “I’m torn. Do you wait for [children] to discover their own heritage? I want to get my hands in to help, but I know I need to wait.”
Theresa serves on a volunteer panel with Corrections Canada that discusses an ethno-cultural approach to corrections, and she often speaks about African heritage at schools in Cumberland County. She feels that there is a great responsibility to teach the importance of prevention, education, and awareness to her community.
“I’m not ready to sit in a rocking chair as a grandmother yet,” she laughed. It is through her past experiences, whether it is as an employee, volunteer or grandmother that Theresa has learned a
great deal about society and herself.
“I believe we need to arrive at an understanding of ourselves,” she said. “I’ve learned to follow the voice of the spirit to remember to dream, to follow the wisdom of the self, and to just be.”