Dalhousie University celebrates bicentennial anniversary as a model of excellence
February 15, 2018
As Dalhousie University marks its bicentennial this year, a storytelling project acknowledges and celebrates the impact and contributions made to the campus, country and the world by 52 alumni.
Every week, the ‘52 Dalhousie Originals’ will be rolled out with a story and feature video. The stories will also be part of an oral repository history for the university archives.
Of course, that list of some of the most important Dal graduates doesn’t include countless more alumni who are making significant contributions in Canada.
They include Dr. Sheridan Cyrus who has a dental practice in Malvern, identified as one of Toronto’s ‘priority neighbourhoods’, and Dr. Winsome Smith – also a dentist – who has been practicing in the city for the last 48 years.
When trying to choose an overseas university to pursue undergraduate and graduate studies, it certainly helped that Cyrus had an older sibling enrolled at Dalhousie University.
Dr. Pemberton Cyrus, now the associate dean of engineering, encouraged his brother to join him in Halifax.
“He said they had a very good dental school,” recalled Cyrus who was a high school biology teacher in Grenada. “As I did my research, I discovered that the only dental schools in Canada accepting international students then were Dal and McGill which had a French requirement for students. The other thing my brother mentioned is that if we stayed together, we could share some costs. That seemed attractive.”
On his first long distance flight, Cyrus arrived in Halifax in August 1983 and completed his studies six years later.
“I enjoyed going to Dal because it’s located in a small community which reminded me of Grenada,” he said. “On Sundays, there wasn’t anything happening which was just like back home.”
Being a lover of music also helped with the smooth transition.
For the entire duration at Dal, Cyrus was a member of the choir that performed at events across the city, including the annual Nova Scotia International Tattoo.
A few months before graduating from dental school, Dr. Trevor Chin Quee – the Chinese Jamaican was the head of periodontics at the time – suggested that Cyrus come to Toronto to practice with Dr. Trevor Mair – a Jamaican who graduated from McGill – who is now retired.
Taking up the proposal, Cyrus landed in Canada’s largest city for the first time in 1989 and, two years later, opened a practice in Scarborough.
The Dalhousie experience has served him very well.
“The dental school was very organized in terms of teaching and clinical experience,” added Cyrus who was the only Black student in his class in the last three years. “When I started working with Dr. Mair, patients asking me how many years I was a dentist were surprised when I told them just a few weeks. They were absolutely shocked.”
After graduating from St. Andrew High School for Girls in 1964, Smith won a Canadian scholarship to pursue medical studies at Dalhousie University.
“As I was completing my first degree, I changed my mind and switched to dentistry,” she said.
Smith graduated with a Doctor of Dental Surgery certification from Dalhousie and completed specialty training in pediatric dentistry at the University of Toronto.
“I really relished my time at Dal,” she said. “Back then, the majority of the West Indian students were there on academic scholarships, so we were academically keen and we did a lot of community work. On the weekends, we went into communities and assisted high school students so they could get into the academic stream. Academic excellence didn’t’ seem to be a priority, and I tried to change that narrative.”
The first Black chair of Humber College’s board of directors, Smith also chaired the College Compensation & Appointments Council board and was the secretary-treasurer of the Association of Women Dentists in Ontario.
She was also affiliated with West Indian Christian Fellowship International, the Caribbean Housing Initiative, the Black Business & Professional Association and SkyDome Corporation.
Both Cyrus and Smith provide young people with scholarships, tutoring and moral support for career advancement.
Established in 1818 as a non-sectarian college by the 9th Earl of Dalhousie, the public research university celebrated its bicentennial launch in style last week with a celebration of the Mi’kmaq presence, drumming, music, song and alumnus Dr. George Elliott Clarke’s performing selections of ‘The Story of Dalhousie; Or, The University as Insurgency’.
In the powerful and provocative interpretation of Dalhousie’s history, the poem -- commissioned for the signature event – acknowledges the university’s first Black law student.
“Ask not about ‘Coloured’ Pupils! Local ex-slaves -- and/or descendants of Loyalists, Maroons, Refugees and Fugitives -- attaining Grade Three, maybe miraculously Grade Six, in Negro only, one-room shacks – have a difficult to impossible time to sidle into Dal’s de facto White aristocratic classes,” the former Canadian parliamentary poet laureate said. “Yet a few West Indians and Bermudans can/do.”
Trinidadian Sylvester Williams was Dalhousie’s first Black law student, enrolling in 1893 just a decade after the Faculty of Law was launched. He quit the program two years later and headed to England where he organized the first Pan African Conference in July 1900.
“He departed minus the degree, but still rallied the Pan African Movement to espouse Empire-wide African, Black and Caribbean independence, that is, escape from European/Caucasian ‘uplift’,” noted Clarke.
Called to the English Bar in 1902, Williams co-founded the African People’s Organization that was the forerunner to the African National Congress (ANC) while serving as the first and only Black member of the bar in the Cape of Good Hope, a British colony in South Africa.
Williams, who died in Trinidad & Tobago in 1911 at age 42, paved the way for James Robinson Johnston to secure a Dalhousie degree in 1896 and become the first African-Nova Scotian to graduate from any university and the first Black lawyer to practice in the province.
Nine days before his 39th birthday in 1915, Johnston was murdered in his Halifax home by his brother-in-law.
An endowed chair in Black Canadian studies bearing Johnston’s name was established at Dalhousie in 1996.
Two decades later, an interdisciplinary minor in Black and African diaspora studies developed by chair holder Dr. Afua Cooper was launched at the university which has about 18,000 students spread across three campuses in Halifax and an agricultural site near Truro.
Condensed into 34 pages, Clarke’s epic poem also recognized the ground-breaking work of the late Rocky Jones who, as a Dal undergraduate in 1970, collaborated with then graduate student James Walker to develop a university-level program aimed at Black and aboriginal school dropouts.
During the Donald Marshall Jr. inquiry, Jones – in 1988 – suggested that increasing representation of indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq in the legal profession was one way of reducing discrimination and successfully tackling systemic failures in the criminal justice system. His advocacy led to the creation of the Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq program (now known as the Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq Initiative) at the law school in 1989.
“Arguably, anyway, the most rad uptakes at Dal were the Transition Year Program and the later Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq Law Initiative, both urged on by Burnley “Rocky” Jones’ analysis – to whit, that one way the criminalized and ‘Coloured’ remain perpetual paupers, social outsides, is via their supposed inadmissibility to university and law school palaver – those organs and engines of bourgeois hegemony,” said Clarke. “Add to these programs the Maritime School of Social Work and Dal Legal Aid and Dal evolves into a nexus, a matrix of potential change-agents.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose late father Pierre Elliott Trudeau received an honorary doctor of laws from Dalhousie in 1983, sent a video message.
“Dal has been a model of academic excellence and a force for good in communities across Nova Scotia,” he said. “In your research, you stayed on the cutting edge of innovation, you transformed the lives of Canadians, improving health care, protecting our shared environment and strengthening our economy. I have two brothers who went to Dal and not only was it an incredible pleasure to come visit them regularly, but I saw first-hand the tremendous impact you had on their lives. For generations, you have put students first and they have gone on to shape the world for the better in every imaginable way.”
Late Guyana president Forbes Burnham and former United Nations general secretary Adebayo Adedeji were conferred with honourary doctorates in 1977 and 1984 respectively.
Other notable Dalhousie honourary doctorate holders include the university’s law degree graduate Donald Oliver who was the first Black male appointed to the Canadian senate in 1990, award-winning author Lawrence Hill, Nova Scotia’s first Black Lieutenant Governor Mayann Francis, community builder Elizabeth Cromwell, writer/filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton who has a Master’s and Doctor of Laws degree from Dal, Michael Duck who invented the Sure Shot dispensing machine in his basement that regulates the amount of cream and sugar poured into a cup of coffee and the late Julius Isaac, Rosemary Brown and Calvin Ruck who graduated from the university’s social work program in the 1970s.
Dalhousie has also produced several history-makers, including Dr. Wanda Bernard who was the first Black Canadian to have a tenure-track position and become a full professor at the university. She was appointed to the Canadian senate two years ago.