'Something powerful': Nova Scotia Brotherhood holds first conference on Black men and health care

The Black Men's Conference was organized by Nova Scotia Brotherhood’s Men’s Health League.
The Black Men's Conference was organized by Nova Scotia Brotherhood’s Men’s Health League.

More than 100 Black men came together Saturday to discuss health – more specifically, to learn, share, and have conversations about the variety of factors that affect the health of African Nova Scotian men.

Guest speakers at the event organized by Nova Scotia Brotherhood’s Men’s Health League, an initiative of Nova Scotia Health Authority’s primary health care team, facilitated; conversations on education; mental health and healthy living; crime and violence; recreation; racism, employment and financial planning; and corrections and community reintegration.

“It’s not often that black men get together to discuss health,” said Matthew Thomas, conference moderator. “There is something powerful when black men get together, in fellowship and to network, to unpack the social determinants of health that are specific to us.”

The determinants of health are the variety of social factors and inequities, combined with genetics and health behaviors that collectively impact one’s health.

“At the surface, you wouldn’t necessarily think that your level of education, having a job and the amount of your income, access to proper housing, crime in your community, and the justice system pertain to health, but in fact they really do,” said Dr. Ronald Milne, family physician with Nova Scotia Brotherhood’s health care team.

Nova Scotia Brotherhood’s Men’s Health League, a volunteer group of black men, identified the need to host a conference on the social determinants of health as part of their work to promote health and wellness among men of African descent through peer-to-peer sharing.

In his opening remarks, Thomas emphasized the importance of the role that conference participants have in sharing with other men:

“The purpose of today is to empower you and equip you to take what you have learned to your communities, and your families,” said Thomas. “We want it to have an impact on your life; it needs to resonate with you to then inspire and educate others – bring it wherever you are going.”

Accessing health services

A prominent theme throughout the day was access to health services.

The Nova Scotia Brotherhood initiative was developed in partnership with African Nova Scotian Affairs and the Department of Health and Wellness to improve Black men’s access to health care in the community and to improve overall health and wellbeing.

A team of health care professionals provide culturally-appropriate primary care and chronic disease management, health and wellness services, and navigation to community resources for men of African descent across Halifax Regional Municipality.

“I want the men to know that what you say in the doctor’s office stays there,” said Mario Rolle, wellness navigator for the Nova Scotia Brotherhood. “That is important for Black men, since there is systematic racism in the health system, just like in other systems. It’s important that we feel comfortable in accessing care.”

The keynote speaker at the conference, Robert Wright, a social worker and sociologist, spoke about the determinants of health and the impact to accessing care.

“How does it affect our health, and weigh on people, when we don’t have access to Black doctors, nurses, educators, and others?” asked Wright. “Our history affects how we show up, and that affects how we access services, which tends to then affect our health. In comparison, brothers who are from the (African) continent or the Caribbean have had a different experience than those in North America.”

Every Wednesday, Dr. Milne holds a clinic that rotates between five community locations to increase accessibility to primary care. Black men can make an appointment with him at the Community Health and Wellness Centre locations in both North Preston and East Preston, or in the Nova Scotia Brotherhood locations on Wyse Road in Dartmouth, Duffus Street in Halifax, and at the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Centre.

“There are a number of health conditions that are more prevalent in Black men,” said Dr. Milne. “High blood pressure; prostate and colon cancer; stress; and heart disease are some of the topics that I’m here to discuss at the conference. Men do not want to go to the doctor, and they don’t want to be tested for certain things, and my role is to help with that.”

“As Black men, we don’t take our health as seriously as we should,” said Coun. Lindell Smith, who represents Peninsula North on Halifax Regional Municipality’s city council. He said Black men don't always take their health as seriously as they should.

“One day it will affect us all, and we know it has already affected us through our family and friends, and in our broader community. That’s why it is so important to listen and share with each other about our experiences.”

Discussions and lessons from the conference will help inform the work of Nova Scotia Brotherhood and the Men’s Health League. Following the conference, Nova Scotia Brotherhood staff and the Men’s Health League members will be looking at themes to then prioritize what to focus on next.

“We will be taking action on the health issues that have been discussed today,” said Rolle. “There is a need to collect data and share this information with others.”

This was echoed by Tony Ince, Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, who also attended the conference.

“This is what I am asking of all the men here today, to please talk to community members, and then email me with your requests for health data,” he said. "By looking at local data related to the determinants of health, this is incredibly important to be able to better address these factors in our community.”