Nova Sco­tia’s long sol­i­dar­ity with Cuba

It’s no sur­prise Cuba’s new star-power am­bas­sador chose Nova Sco­tia for her of­fi­cial trip out­side cen­tral Canada.



late Jan­uary 1994, Glenn Ells’ phone rang. It was newly-minted Nova Sco­tia premier John Sav­age. His of­fi­cials had just re­turned from a check­ing-out-trade-prospects trip to Cuba, he ex­plained to the pres­i­dent of Kings Pro­duce Ltd., and “I think there might be some­thing there for you.”

Two years later, Ells’ Wolfville-based fruit and veg­etable whole­sale com­pany had a deal with a farm co-op in San An­to­nio, Cuba. Ells sent them “Sweet Mama” squash seeds and some used farm ma­chin­ery; ev­ery Fe­bru­ary, the co-op shipped back freshly har­vested but­ter­cup squash “just as our lo­cal squash was run­ning out.”

It be­came more than a busi­ness deal. “I made a lot of friends,” Ells says to­day. He even helped one Cuban cou­ple ar­range Cana­dian fi­nanc­ing to launch a bed and break­fast. That cou­ple now sum­mers in Nova Sco­tia, work­ing with Ells’ son and daugh­ter-in-law in their vine­yard. “Blame it on John Sav­age,” Ells jokes. Or on Nova Sco­tia salt cod. Or Cuban rum. Nova Sco­tia’s deep Cuba con­nec­tion dates back to at least 1903 when Cuba es­tab­lished its first-ever for­eign con­sulate in Yar­mouth to buy cod. After Cuba won the right to har­vest un­der­uti­lized fish species in Cana­dian waters in 1977, its north­ern fish­ing fleet based it­self in Hal­i­fax for 23 years.

No won­der then that Jose­fina Vi­dal, Cuba’s new star-power am­bas­sador in Ot­tawa, chose Nova Sco­tia for her of­fi­cial trip out­side cen­tral Canada.

She is, in fact, the fifth Cuban am­bas­sador in the mod­ern era to visit the prov­ince, and the fifth to be hosted by Dal­housie pro­fes­sor John Kirk.

Vi­dal de­scribes Kirk—who has been trav­el­ing, re­search­ing and writ­ing about Cuba since 1976 and, in 2011, re­ceived Cuba’s Friend­ship Medal, the high­est hon­our it gives for­eign­ers— as “the most Cuban of all Cana­di­ans.”

In Nova Sco­tia, how­ever, he might have com­pe­ti­tion for that hon­our.

An­other Dal prof, Isaac Saney, the au­thor of a well-re­garded book on Cuba’s revo­lu­tion, is the co-chair of the na­tional Cana­dian Net­work on Cuba. Lo­cal mu­si­cian Jeff Good­speed or­ches­trates reg­u­lar ex­changes be­tween young Cuban and Nova Sco­tian mu­si­cians. Vet­eran Hal­i­fax pho­tog­ra­pher Dan Cal­lis or­ga­nizes reg­u­lar Ha­vana Pho­tog­ra­phy Work­shops for trav­eler-pho­tog­ra­phers from all over the world.

And we can’t for­get the Nova Sco­tia-Cuba As­so­ci­a­tion; a group of more than three dozen like-minded in­di­vid­u­als who came to­gether in 1989 to counter what they con­sid­ered Cuba’s “raw deal” from the US block­ade. Dur­ing the 1990s, they filled con­tain­ers to ship to Cuba with ev­ery­thing from med­i­cal sup­plies to house­hold goods. As re­cently as two years ago, mem­bers loaded 200 mat­tresses aboard a Cuba-bound ves­sel after Hur­ri­cane Matthew dev­as­tated the eastern city of Bara­coa.

Vi­dal’s visit last week was, in part, to thank all of them for their sol­i­dar­ity. But there was more to it too.

Vi­dal, a charis­matic 57-year-old Cuban diplo­mat who’s served in Wash­ing­ton and Paris, and been at the cen­tre of ev­ery dra­matic event in US-Cuban re­la­tions—from the 1999 tug of war over the fate of five-year-old Elián González to the ne­go­ti­a­tions to re­open em­bassies in the two coun­tries—also ar­rived with a busi­ness-friendly mes­sage.

Cuba has “opened up” to for­eign in­vest­ment and is look­ing for new trad­ing part­ners, she told 20 busi­ness­peo­ple at an ACOA-or­ga­nized ses­sion in Hal­i­fax. Cuba, she added—per­haps un­nec­es­sar­ily given her visit co­in­cided with an­other snowy-rainy-sleety Novem­ber week— is also keen to wel­come them as tourists.

Glenn Ells, now 84, doesn’t need an in­vi­ta­tion. He’s al­ready booked his next flight for late Jan­uary. “We’ll be stay­ing with our Cuban friends at their B&B.”


Jose­fina Vi­dal with Dal­housie prof John Kirk (left) in his of­fice dur­ing her visit to Nova Sco­tia.

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