New Black Studies chair appointed at Dalhousie University
March 6, 2019
With no Black Canadian Studies position at Canadian universities focussing on medicine and health, the James Robinson Johnston Chair at Dalhousie University seemed a perfect fit for Dr. OmiSoore Dryden.
The endowed national senior academic Chair is located in the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Community Health & Epidemiology.
“That is where my work has been generally in different disciplines,” said the new Chair holder whose six-year appointment starts on May 1. “The focus has been not only exploring medicine, medical interventions and health status for Black people specifically in Canada, but also what medicine and health interventions mean for us. Are we only the research subjects or are we also benefitting from good health?
“Public health discourse have, at times, framed the body as dangerous, with some bodies presumed to be more prone to risk and vulnerability to disease and thus pose a greater danger to the rest of society. My research seeks to understand how the interlocking systems of oppression (through racism, gender, and sexuality) influence the health experiences of Black people in Canada.”
In her new role, Dryden will help the Faculty of Medicine strengthen Dalhousie’s institutional priorities to enhance diversity, foster community outreach and build a health research mandate that is collaborative, interdisciplinary and nationally recognized.
She’s the principal investigator of a Canadian Blood Services’ MSM Research grant project -- #GotBlood2Give/DuSangADonner – that takes her to Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax.
“During regular visits to Halifax, I had the opportunity to meet with Black Nova Scotians and learn again more about their rich and vibrant history,” said Dryden. “Working in health, I got a chance to speak with other researchers who are doing this fantastic work around Black health and are really committed to health as an activist and revolutionary practice. One of the things I want to do is work closely with the Black Nova Scotian community to be able to develop a research project that looks at all aspects of health for Black Nova Scotians. More broadly, when we think about Black health in Canada, often we are as a sick community or a community that’s at risk. That’s important, but rarely do we look at our communities to figure out what does health mean to us. What does good health look like in Black communities and how can we take that information and apply it more broadly?
Collaborating with health researchers throughout Canada on a comprehensive health research project is a priority for Dryden.
“It’s time for us to talk about all aspects of health,” she said. “How do we document what we already know is going on? How do we put together comprehensive suggestive interventions to the powers that be? The Prime Minister signed on to the International Decade for People of African Descent. What is the health commitment in that for Canada? What are the provincial governments doing about providing more adequate care for Black communities in Canada and that means having to talk about difficult things like anti-Black racism? What is the after-life of slavery and how that continues to impact our health?”
As part of the interview process for the position, Dryden and the other finalists – Dr. Winston Husbands is a senior scientist at the Ontario HIV Treatment Network and Dr. Ingrid Waldron is an associate professor in the Dalhousie University’s School of Nursing – were invited to Nova Scotia to talk about why they were interested in the position and their research.
The Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute partnered with Dalhousie University to host the meet and greet with the candidates.
Dryden relished the interaction.
“I have always envisioned the job as having a community responsibility,” she said. “As much as I spoke about what I wanted to do through research, education and service, I knew that my direction had to come from the community. I didn’t want to commit to something and then have the community say we don’t want that.”
The interdisciplinary scholar wasn’t surprised by some of the community’s concerns.
“They spoke about the over-surveillance of the Black Nova Scotian community and how this negatively impacts seeking care, receiving care and staying well,” Dryden, the 2010-11 Muriel & Danny Fung graduate award winner, pointed out. “They told me about not having doctors that looked like them and the ways in which anti-Black racism continues to negatively harm their lives. They wanted to know how they could speak about the realities of racism in their lives and how can decision makers hear that.”
Dryden’s 2016 doctoral dissertation examined how blood donation rules discriminate against certain populations.
She explored the Canadian Blood Services blood donation questionnaire and how the blood stories assembled within this document, and in the larger blood system, intersect with and depict blackness, queer (diaspora) sexualities, and Canadian (homo) nation-making.
“When I began to do a history of blood donations in Canada, what I came to quickly learn was that Black people have always been the target,” the University of Toronto OISE doctoral graduate said. “In 1940 when the first blood donor clinic emerged, all the blood collected was racially segregated based on donors. My work that started at York University as a political activist saying we need to identify and name the racism and homophobia that’s happening in blood donations brought me to my PhD. studies that was able to map out the ways in which marginalized people are often held responsible for viruses, diseases, illness and transmission. Black and Indigenous people are often thought of as being vectors and carriers of diseases and that led to many research projects, including the one I am working on right now.”
The #GotBlood2Give/DuSangADonner research study is examining the barriers to participation in blood donation among African, Caribbean and Black men over the age of 17 (18 in Montreal) who have sex with men.
Dr. Rinaldo Walcott, who was Dryden’s doctoral supervisor, welcomed the appointment.
“Dr. Dryden will bring an interdisciplinary perspective to the Chair that will account for Black women and Black queer people lives in a way that has not happened before,” he said. “Her funded research on blood donation, Black and African exclusions from donation and queer men experiences will go a long way in broadening how we think about Black life in Canada.”
Dr. Lance McCready met Dryden 13 years ago when he arrived at the University of Toronto.
They were part of a reading group.
“She’s very community minded,” he said. “Her research focus is on a controversial topic, blood, but it is also an excellent metaphor for so many things in Black communities. Her being of Caribbean background is going to be a learning curve in relation to the Afro Nova Scotian population, but I think she’s up to the challenge. She’s really smart and she has a good sense of humor which, I think will serve her well going into a new environment.”
The eldest of two siblings, Dryden migrated from Jamaica in the late 1960s to join her parents who settled in southwestern Ontario.
Both educators in Jamaica, Norman Dryden was a psychiatric nurse in St. Thomas while his wife, Veronica, joined the London Board of Education in 1968 and rose to the position of vice-principal before succumbing to breast cancer in 1998. Alzheimer’s disease claimed her husband’s life three years earlier.
They both died in their 64th year while pursuing Master’s and PhD. degrees respectively.
“They stayed in their exact jobs from the time they got here to when they died,” Dryden noted. “Anti-Back racism, I think, stole their retirement because they didn’t get the opportunity to retire from their jobs. When I think about being the new James Johnston Chair holder, I think about all of the reasons why my parents wanted to come to Canada. One of the reasons was to make sure that I had opportunities they felt they didn’t necessarily have. This position is a realization of some of the hopes and aspirations they had for me.”
Dryden is the fourth Chair holder.
Lawyer and linguist Dr. Esmeralda Thornhill was appointed to the Faculty of Law in 1996 while Dr. David Divine followed in 2004 in the Faculty of Health Professions School of Social Work. He was forced to step down after suffering serious injuries in a vehicular accident in 2007. The Chair was vacant for four years before Dr. Afua Cooper’s appointment in the Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology.
“At Dalhousie, there’s a specific focus on Black Canada,” said Cooper who is Halifax’s poet laureate. “In that sense, the university has become a national leader in the field.”
The Chair pays tribute to James Robinson Johnston who was the first Nova Scotian of African descent to graduate from Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Law. He died in 1915 at age 39.