Corinne Sparks Biography
Family court judge
In 1987 Judge Corrine Sparks secured her spot in history by becoming the first African Nova Scotian to receive appointment to the judiciary and the first African Canadian female to serve on the bench. Sparks adjudicates family court cases relating to custody, child and spousal support, access, and child protection. She supports judicial education, developing educational programs and lecturing on that and gender and racial discrimination and the courts. Sparks works with the Commonwealth Judicial Educational Center, which promotes judicial education and her work has earned her numerous awards and recognition. Sparks' humble beginnings in segregated Nova Scotia left much to overcome. But she succeeded through hard work, a willingness to challenge, and a strong belief in her faith.
Sparks was born on August 13, 1953, and grew up in the small segregated rural area of Nova Scotia, Canada, called Lake Loon. Stressing education, her parents, Spencer and Helen Sparks, worked hard and sacrificed to provide their nine children a stable and loving home in their community of several black towns dotting the periphery of Halifax. "They took their roles as parents seriously and they did not believe in hand-outs," Sparks said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). Although poverty was a daily fact and schools were segregated and poor, Sparks' parents had tremendous faith and much of their family life centered on the church. "My parents' needs were secondary to their children's," Sparks said. "It was extraordinary parenting at a fundamental level. Many blacks could not afford to even look after their own children." Life was difficult for the family just as it had been for their neighbors and other blacks whose ancestors first settled in Nova Scotia during the 1700s and 1800s with promise of land and freedom. Instead, from the start African Nova Scotians were mistreated and marginalized.
Many believe the history of blacks in North America is the story of the African-American experience. Little known outside Canada is the history of the resettlement of the Black Loyalists around 1783 and the "black refugees" after 1812. Sparks traces her ancestors from both these events in African Nova Scotian history. "I would say that my family lineage is typical of most African Nova Scotians here in our little province," Sparks said. "But it is lamentable that we black people in the diaspora do not know enough about each other's history. Many unfortunately know very little about the many manifestations of colonialism and don't fully appreciate the fact that Nova Scotia was very segregated."
Segregation in Nova Scotia began with the first presence of black settlers. After the American Revolution, many blacks who had supported England were promised freedom, land, and safe passage from America to Nova Scotia. Thirty-five hundred slaves, indentured servants, and free men set sail for Canada only to find they were not welcome, and the harsh climate was nothing like anything they had experienced. Some had no time to build shelter and spent the winter in tents; others built pits in the ground as shelter from the cold. Very few received all the land they were promised, some received a few acres, and many received nothing. That meant little farming could be done and food would be scarce. The "black refugees" came later after supporting England during the War of 1812. They too received a cold—and many times cruel—welcome. Some settlers had to sell themselves into indentured servitude and were treated just as badly as the slaves; disease was widespread just as it had been for the Loyalists; many died. "It's a history of denial, poverty, discrimination, prejudice, and monumental barriers against our people here in Nova Scotia," Sparks said.
Race relations and slavery in Canada took their twists and turns through history, often paralleling the black struggle in the United States. By the 1970s when Sparks entered middle and high school, educational opportunities for blacks were still few. But Sparks was fortunate enough to have teachers who believed in her. "They saw my potential, something I did not recognize in myself. My elementary school teachers took an interest in me. I went to an integrated middle school where there was a fair amount of racial dissention as black and white students were brought together. But I had a number of black and East Indian teachers who took an interest. They would sometimes take me to libraries and universities. Also, my mother really valued education and knew it opened doors," Sparks told CBB.
From 1971 to 1974 Sparks attended Mount Saint Vincent University, where she earned an economics degree. She had gotten there by the altruism of her high school principal who, aware of her circumstances, had submitted her name to the local rotary club. She received substantial tuition assistance as a result. Also, nuns belonging to the Sisters of Charity Order supplied additional assistance in the way of tuition, room, and board. "I sometimes wonder what I would have made of my life if I had not had such good fortune," Sparks said.
Sparks went on to earn a bachelor of law degree from Dalhousie University in 1979. In 2001 she completed a master's of law degree at Dalhousie. While she studied, Sparks ran her own law practice specializing in family and real estate law and served on the boards of several organizations aiding black children and mental health before her appointment to the Nova Scotia Family Court in 1987.
Mindful of the responsibilities of one who sits in judgment of others each day, Sparks told CBB, "You are dealing with human beings. In order to be an effective judge you need to employ many skills on a daily basis. You need knowledge of the law, human compassion, and empathy. One has to be mindful that one is just an instrument for serving the public. In that sense, that is the most gratifying aspect of the job, the ability to serve people knowing hopefully that you are able to balance your legal knowledge with compassion and understanding with the human beings who appear before you."
Being a female whose accomplishments have earned her several "firsts" in a male-dominated field is a testament to Sparks' strength and determination. The path has not been an easy one. "I have had many, many challenges in my life, some Herculean. However, the nature of judicial office does not lend itself to a lot of outside support; you must rely on colleagues and family. Sometimes they can only understand the nuances of the obstacles I have faced professionally and otherwise. Yes, I have encountered lots of obstacles in my career and in life growing up in humble circumstances and attending segregated schools. I think it is important to confront challenges no matter how painful. You have to have coping mechanisms in this life; no one glides through it. For me it has been my faith. I am very grateful that I was raised in a Christian home."
"Remembering Black Loyalists: Who Were the Black Loyalists?" Nova Scotia Museum, http://museum.gov.ns.ca/blackloyalists/who.htm (04/16/05).
"Nova Scotia Family Court Judges," The Courts of Nova Scotia, www.courts.ns.ca/family/fam_judges.htm (04/16/05).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Judge Corrine Sparks on April 23, 2005.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher