KENTVILLE, N.S. — A Nova Scotia court martial heard contrasting views from witnesses Monday on whether a white reservist’s use of the word “nappy” to describe a black co-worker’s hair was intended as a racial slur.
Cpl. Garett Rollman pleaded not guilty Monday to a charge of striking his superior officer on the hand and two charges of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline.”
Prosecutors said Rollman made an inappropriate comment to civilian worker Cheryl Richard about black hair styles in a kitchen at the military base in Aldershot, N.S., in late February 2016.
Richard said Monday her co-worker told her about a video that he’d viewed where a black woman was sponging her hair due to it being “nappy.”
“I said, ‘Excuse me,’ and he said, ‘Nappy hair, you know like yours,’” she said, adding she immediately left the area, upset by the comment.
Richard testified the term is ”a racial slur they used a long time ago saying that black people have knotty hair because they didn’t have the means of working with their hair. It’s a racial slur that white people use.”
However, Sgt. Christopher Jones, the senior non-commissioned officer in the unit, testified that as a black man and a supervisor of the two workers, he didn’t believe that Rollman was using the term as a slur.
Jones said he believed Rollman had been explaining in a pleasant way that he and his black girlfriend had been watching a program about hair styles, and Rollman may not have understood Richard was offended by his description of what he saw.
“He was trying to explain something nice … because nappy hair means style,” Jones testified, adding the term can have various meanings in different contexts.
He said that Richard had a long-standing conflict with Rollman, to the point where the two were assigned to work on separate shifts for several years, and he testified Richard had taken the opportunity to “go after him (Rollman).”
The prosecution alleged that the following day Rollman was standing near Richard when he pushed a garbage container across the kitchen and shouted insults and profanities at her.
Richard testified she went from the kitchen area to a room where Sgt. Earl Smith — the second in command of the area — was sitting and told him about the incident.
The prosecution alleges that Smith stood up, and “Cpl. Rollman hit the sergeant’s hand out of the way and took up a boxer’s stance,” before more yelling ensued and Rollman left Smith’s office.
Sharon Angel, another civilian employee, testified Monday she witnessed Rollman and Smith yelling, and she saw Rollman raise his hand.
She said she heard Smith yell, “Don’t you hit me!” but she couldn’t see if Rollman actually struck his superior.
Capt. Greg Moorehead, the military prosecutor, told the court during his opening statement that Rollman’s behaviour breached military law.
“None of this behaviour is acceptable, your honour, particularly in a disciplined and professional military,” he said.
During defence cross examination, Richard told the court that she had “sometimes” complained about Rollman’s behaviour in the past, and confirmed he had launched a workplace harassment complaint against her prior to the incident.
During opening statements, military defence lawyer Lt.-Cmdr. Brent Walden had asked for the case to be adjourned. He said the court needed time to find Smith, who has left the military and hasn’t responded to emails from the prosecution requesting his presence.
The presiding military judge ruled that the case could proceed, noting a week has been set aside for the case.
However, she also took note of the defence’s concerns over the absence of a key witness in the case.