One of Pictou County’s most noted activists said he never thought of himself as a trail blazer, but it is a mantle he is proud to accept.
“I’ve never thought of myself in that way in relation to municipal politics, more so in terms of race relations,” Henderson Paris said.
Paris is a proverbial giant among men in raising awareness about racism. He started the Run Against Racism 28 years ago with a handful of supporters after growing weary of experiencing racism not only in his personal life but in seeing all that was happening throughout Pictou County as well.
Paris is black, his wife Carol is white. They raised two sons in an environment that he said was sometimes charged with racism. A quiet man with a gentle, loving nature, Paris set about to make a change in his community the best way he knew how: through running and education.
“When we were dating and Henderson would come to pick me up, we both knew that we might probably face some possible challenges. That was the way things were back then,” Carol recalled.
Henderson grew up in a time that was fraught with racial tension and ugly attitudes about mixed relationships. He and his siblings – Henderson is the youngest of 10 children born to Violet and Freeman “Pete” Paris – endured discrimination in many forms, but instead of nurturing the scars and picking at the scabs, Paris turned his energy to action and started the run.
“I started the run to draw attention to the racial tension that was rampant,” Paris said.
The lifelong New Glasgow resident was happy to start the run in his hometown. His aim was simple: call attention to racial inequality. Through the run, Paris taught school children the importance of respecting each other and he inspired adults in his fight against racism.
In the beginning, Paris timed the run to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in March. Every year, the number of participants grew and his message began to spread.
In 2009, Paris announced his intention to scale back his involvement in the run but many people saw the need to continue the great strides the run was making. The event is now called the Marathon of Respect and Equality and it is now organized by former school principal Peter White and his wife Diane who have been longtime supporters of Paris and his Run Against Racism. The MORE run is held the first Thursday of every May and it incorporates each community in Pictou County, including Pictou Landing First Nation. The goals of MORE coincide with Paris’ intentions: respect for diversity and support of all people, regardless of their circumstances.
Paris decided to enter the world of municipal politics in 2004.
“I wanted to run as a citizen, not as a black citizen,” he said of his decision. “I wanted the opportunity to serve the residents of Ward One and to represent all of the citizens of New Glasgow because the decisions you make in council affect everyone.”
Paris sat on many committees and held the position of chair on several of those over his 12-year term on council.
“Through council, I had the opportunity to travel across Canada and engage with my municipal colleagues in ways that were so beneficial to me. But it was troubling to see the lack of diversity in municipal politics.”
He was deputy mayor twice — while working with both a female and male mayor — and served as the first chairman of the Unesco Race Relations & Anti-Discrimination Committee with the Town of New Glasgow.
“That opened a door that had been closed for a long time. As chairman, I was fortunate to have worked with some genuine people who wanted to see changes.”
Paris was also asked to speak on numerous occasions including taking part on a municipal awareness panel in Truro to help bring added attention to those who might be interested in running for municipal election.
Paris was also honoured by Dalhousie Legal Aid with the second annual Irving and Ruth Pink Award for Youth Development and Social Justice. As well, he has received the Nova Scotia Human Rights Award, Federation of Canadian Municipalities Race Relations Award and received an honorary diploma from the Nova Scotia Community College, Pictou Campus, just to name a few of his many accomplishments.
Paris is forever pleased with his and Carol’s 20 years of volunteering with the Royal Canadian Legion National Track & Field Championships; they served the last 14 years as head chaperones over the entire camp for all of Canada.
Paris ended his time on council in 2016 when he lost his bid for mayor in the municipal election.
“Even though I was not successful in my bid for mayor, I was truly pleased and proud of the tremendous support I received.”
In being a trail blazer, Paris comes by it honestly. He cites his parents as being role models. His father was a deacon in the church and is in the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame for baseball and hockey. “He worked at Maritime Steel and after work, including Saturdays, he worked doing another job so as to further provide for his family,” Paris praised.
“They taught us deep respect and to provide for ourselves, to be aware. My mom taught us to speak up for ourselves.”
Of his mother, Paris said she was “well respected in our community and was never hesitant to take on any kind of a task, no matter how big or small. I remember when she and some others from our community formed a group called the Pursuers whereby they would help with making improvements or speaking up when necessary on matters that affected either individuals or the community as a whole.”
Recognizing African Heritage Month is essential today, Paris said. “History is so important. It is through history that you see your progress and where we are today. We should continue to tell our stories…”