“I should be homegrown by now as I’ve spent two thirds of my life here,” says Rustum Southwell, referring to his 1972 move to Halifax from St Kitts in the British West Indies. “I’ve had times when I’ve felt as a total outsider and times I’ve felt the warmth of embrace.” Luckily for Nova Scotia, Rustum’s love for the province kept him here contributing greatly to our economic growth as Founding CEO of the Black Business Initiative (BBI) and to the volunteer sector.
Rustum went to school in Barbados but, because he wasn’t doing well, his father’s friend suggested sending him to Nova Scotia. He spent a year at Mount St. Vincent University and then studied science and psychology at Dalhousie. “In your 20s you can be a bit carefree. I didn’t know how my future would end up.” He spent his first summers working at the Algonquin Hotel in St. Andrews New Brunswick.
In 1979, along with other Caribbean students, Rustum decided to stay. That year his father, the prominent trade unionist and Premier of St Kitts, died suddenly at 66. Rustum now regarded his future more seriously and thought he should engage his business acumen learned at home selling produce. So he managed a CARA food outlet in Dartmouth which quickly became the most successful in Canada. The BBI then became his “lifetime work.” He helped design programs, hire staff and make strategic plans. He was aware of being an outsider. “In the beginning you felt some people in your own community wanted you to fall on your face. Only when there was significant progress, people came on side.” He worked on most major projects in the Black community – a museum for Black Loyalists in Shelburne, the Black Cultural Centre and African NS Music Awards. He’s proud of BBI’s work, creating over 200 companies, providing over 700 jobs. He also sat on the Nova Scotia Community College board for six years and participated in the United Way and the Waterfront Development Corporation Limited.
“It’s so satisfying to know I’ve made a difference.”
Although Rustum could have joined friends and relatives in bigger centres, Halifax suits him. “I don’t need the hectic pace of a New York mentality.” He is now officially retired but as well as golfing and vacationing in St. Kitts, he serves on the board of Black Loyalists, works on Halifax Chamber of Commerce committees and chairs Hope Blooms, a community garden enterprise.
Rustum’s wife, a Saint Mary’s commerce graduate who immigrated in 1976, has retired from management at Aliant. Two sons live at home. Rustum is from a family of eleven including two older brothers who played on St. Kitts National Soccer Team, but his sports prowess was cricket. Rustum wrote a book about his father and returned to St. Kitts to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday. He admits he never made much of his father’s accomplishments. “I always thought I should do it on my own. I didn’t want to spin off on someone else’s achievements. ” But he accepts that his roots greatly affected his life’s path. “It’s so satisfying to know I’ve made a difference.”