The Workers’ History Museum is proud to announce the Cal Best Project, exploring the life and legacy of this Black activist, union leader, and senior government official. The project includes a travelling exhibit, educational materials and a documentary, Simply the Best. I talked with Arthur Carkner, project coordinator, and Wasim Baobaid, filmmaker, to see how a project like this gets started from the ground up.
Cydney: First of all, I have to say that I’m very excited about this project. It seems like one of the most ambitious endeavours that the WHM has taken part in. Could you tell us how it began? Who came up with the initial idea?
Art: The Cal Best Project began with a DVD of a panel discussion with Founders of PSAC initiated by Craig Spencer. I suggested using parts of this to create a contemporary DVD looking at the life and career of the subject. One of the missions of the WHM is to bring archival or neglected material to a wider audience, to preserve the voices and artifacts of an earlier time.
Cydney: I understand that this project has grown way past the initial estimates. What have you discovered that warrants this larger scope?
Wasim: When we started the research we could not get any info in the web. There wasn’t even a Wikipedia entry on him. When we got his correct name (“J. Calbert Best”) we found more information, but not as much as we hoped. After that Arthur did very good job in tracking his family member and we got to know more about Cal.
Art: The scope of the project grew considerably as Wasim and I did further research. We learned about his early struggles with racism, his Nova Scotia achievements, about his mother, Carrie Best. Best’s role in immigration, amateur sport, senior positions in various government departments ending in being Canada’s first Black High Commissioner (ambassador) gradually came to light, and we continue to learn more.
Cydney: Could you share one of your favourite “gems” that the research has uncovered?
Art: Cal Best chaired a commission on amateur sport funding, a very hot topic to this day. He recommended that more money be targeted on fewer sports, rather than a scattergun approach. One of the sports subsequently suggested for defunding was biathlo. Myriam Bedard had won a gold medal in this sport, and publicly confronted the Minister, saying, “You’re not going to defund my sport, are you?”.Best’s family teased him about not standing on his apartment balcony, lest Bedard pick him off with her rifle.
Wasim: I would like also to mention that Cal was one of the few people in the world who had a chance to shake hands with the Queen. That itself will give you a good idea of how the man held a senior position at that time. (Unfortunately we could not get a photo of him with the Queen!)
Cydney: You’ve interviewed a lot of Cal Best’s friends and family. If you could talk to the man himself, what would you want to ask him?
Art: I would ask Cal Best what changes he saw in Canadian society in 49 years of public service, and how he thinks the public service of today will be challenged in the future.
Wasim: I would like to know more about his early age especially in New Glasgow and Halifax. I want to know his feelings during his school in terms of racism during that time, and how he got over it. From the interviews we did we know that he was the first black family to arrive to Ottawa, and his daughter Christene said that she and her brother were the only two in the school who were “coloured” at that time. So how much more did he feel that in his school days?
Cydney: The sad death of Burnley Allan Jones was a blow to this project. I believe he was scheduled to be interviewed during the week that he died. What are the plans now?
Art: There is no replacing Rocky Jones in our documentary, he is irreplaceable. We are pursuing other notable Nova Scotians and Ottawans who knew and worked with Best for archival purposes, and to post on our website.
Cydney: Cal Best seems to be one of the unsung heroes of Canada. What do you hope this project will accomplish in terms of making his name known?
Art: We hope the Cal Best Project will get its subject better known in the public, in schools, in the Black community and that he will serve as an inspiration to all those who struggle to improve Canada and the world.
Wasim: This film has a strong message, as do my latest films (Yes, I Can and Sax Appeal). I totally believe, if there is a strong need, desire, and believe of yourself; absolutely, you will achieve your goals no matter who you are, what color and what condition you are in. “Believe in yourself and move forward,” this is the simple message of this film.
By Cydney Foote
Catch a sneak preview of “Simply the Best” at the Canadian Labour International Film Festival on November 29th at the PSAC Building, 233 Gilmour Street, Ottawa.