Brad Barton was born on June 14, 1945, in Jordantown, a small, segregated black community of 600 in western Nova Scotia. His father was a labourer; his mother, a housekeeper; he had five siblings. He spent his early life in the church—his father and grandfather were deacons, and Brad was in the choir. He made his own fun: softball, rolling tires down the road, picking berries and selling them.
At the end of Grade 6, Brad took an exam to get into junior high school in the town of Digby. “I saw a few kids from our community,” he says. “Everybody else was a sea of white.” Based on his test score, he was placed in the lower academic stream. “Even though he wasn’t highly educated, my father went to see the principal,” he says. “He convinced him to give me a chance in a regular class.” Brad made the most of it, joining the school newspaper, yearbook and every sports team he could. In his final year, he was elected student council president. “Back in those days, that was something that didn’t happen too often.” He felt comfortable at the school but knew not all of his friends did. “There were a lot of children from our community who were very capable but didn’t function very well in that environment,” he says. “They didn’t get the benefit of education. That’s always been a thought that’s motivated me—regardless of what colour or race or religion or ethnicity or whatever, they should have the same opportunity to reach their full potential.”
After high school, Brad became a teacher in North Preston, another segregated community near Halifax. “I just fell in love with it,” he says. “They embraced me and welcomed me. I was sure that’s what I wanted to do: be a teacher.” For more than 30 years, he taught and was a principal and vice-principal in schools across Nova Scotia, eventually teaching his students’ children. “To this day, when I see students, they still approach me. That’s always a good feeling.”
Throughout his career, he’s also founded, chaired and joined too many organizations to name, among them the Black Educators Association, Black Learners Advisory Committee and National Council of Black Educators of Canada. By leading professional teacher development, he improved race relations inside Nova Scotia’s schools. “Way back, we called ourselves coloured, Negro, black, African, African-Canadian, African-Nova Scotian,” he says. “I’ve had the opportunity to work through all those genres.”
After retiring from teaching in 1997, Brad turned his attention to another longtime passion: volleyball. A former Volleyball Canada national chairperson—and the first black Canadian to become an internationally rated referee—he reffed the women’s bronze medal match at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and has travelled from Korea to Cuba, Bulgaria to Tijuana. Now in his 50th year of officiating, he’s the only international ref in Eastern Canada, where he lives with his wife in Halifax; his three children are scattered across the country. “I don’t know where I’d be without volleyball,” he says. His experience with the sport reflects his life as a student, teacher and activist. “If you work hard, put a lot of time in and develop your skills, you advance. It’s a tremendous feeling.” — Luc Rinaldi
(Portrait by Carla Antonio)