Dalhousie University apologizes for founder's racist views

Dalhousie University apologizes for founder's racist views

September 23, 2019

Dalhousie University has apologized to Black Nova Scotians for its founder’s racist actions and views.

George Ramsay, who described Black people as ‘idle and pre-disposed for slavery’, used the proceeds of slavery to set up the university in 1818 and actively sought to banish Black refugees from Nova Scotia.

The University’s Interim President Dr. Teri Balser issued the apology at a reception on September 5 to mark the end of the ‘Scholarly Panel to Examine Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race’.

“Further, we acknowledge our dual responsibility to address the legacies of anti-Black racism and slavery, while continuing to stand against anti-Black racism today,” she said in a joint response to the report co-signed by the university’s Senate Chair Dr. Kevin Hewitt and Candace Thomas who last May became the first woman elected to chair the Board of Governors.

“What the Scholarly Panel has uncovered over the past three years tells a story that is much larger than one person or one university. It is a window into the history of Halifax, Nova Scotia and indeed to the broader Atlantic region. It bears witness to views and practices that should feel profoundly wrong to all of us. But it also places those words and actions in their context, providing us with a deep understanding of not just George Ramsay, but anti-Black racism more broadly in the early 19th century.”

An apology was among 13 recommendations made by the panel chaired by Dr. Afua Cooper who is a Professor in Dalhousie’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology.

“It’s not often that Black people get apologies for injustices they suffer, so this is significant,” the report lead author said.

Dr. Afua Cooper

Dr. Afua Cooper

Cooper and her research team combed through relevant archives in Canada and the United Kingdom, examining letters, formal proclamations, immigration reports and accounting documents to better understand Ramsay and his views.

“When we looked at George Ramsay and his writings and letters, we realized that it was part of a larger story, part of a larger context,” she said. “From that phrase, ‘slaves by habit and education’, we discovered these entanglements that Dalhousie University and George Ramsay had with slaves and slavery and anti-Blackness.”

Expressing regret for the university and its founder’s connections to slavery and anti-Black racism, supporting recognition of the historical realities of Black people lives in Nova Scotia and the enormous contributions they have made and taking concrete steps to repair the damage, particularly in the area of teaching and research, are commitments that the panel hope the institution will make as part of the reconciliation process.

“The thing that stood out for me during the three years I worked on this project was how the slave trade and the Caribbean slave economy, in this case, were absolutely essential to the wealth of White people,” noted Cooper who co-founded the Black Canadian Studies Association. “Nova Scotia’s economy was based on the slave economy of the West Indies. A bunch of merchants made their money through the cod and rum trade before moving on to other industries like ship building, insurance and banking. The Bank of Nova Scotia came out of slave-produced goods and a big part of the money that was used to endow Dalhousie also came from the West Indies trade. To put it bluntly, the university owes Black people and Caribbean folks in particular.”

Noting that the recommendations will be critical in informing Dalhousie’s path forward, Balser said they will be embedded into the institutions’ strategic plan under the leadership of Dr. Theresa Rajack-Talley who was recently appointed Vice-Provost of Equity & Inclusion.

“With her extensive scholarly background in Pan-Africanism and studies of racism, she is ideally suited and fully committed to ensuring the Scholarly Panel’s recommendations inform and shape our efforts moving forward,’ said Balser who announced that a new scholarship for a Black student will be offered next fall. “The work ahead will take time as systemic change does not happen overnight.

“…The responsibility for the work to come is shared between the university governing bodies we represent here today, with the staff, faculty, alumni and students that make up our university community and with our partners in government, in industry and in our communities. That said, Dalhousie University should and must take a leadership role in this responsibility. We cannot change the history detailed by this Scholarly Panel, nor change how it has informed our present, but we get to decide how it shapes our future.”

Hewitt, who commissioned the Panel in 2016 with then President Richard Florizone, said the report is historic

“This is a body of work that will inform the work of scholars and activists for generations to come,” said the Department of Physics & Atmospheric Science faculty member. “It allows us to move forward with the difficult but important conversations and work that will tell us what kind of people we are, what reconciliation looks like and what world we want to live in, hopefully creating a more welcoming, just and equitable place for all.”

Dalhousie is the first Canadian university to inquire into its relationship to slavery and race.

Last April, Queen’s University formally apologized for the Faculty of Medicine unjust decision in 1918 to expel 15 students, the majority from the Caribbean.

The ban, enforced until 1965, was instituted to demonstrate alignment with discriminatory policies favoured at the time by the American Medical Association, the organization that ranked medical schools in North America.

This fall, medical students are taught for the first time about the school’s 47-year ban on Black students seeking admittance to the program.

“I am hoping that other institutions will pick this up and commission their own reports just like what is happening in the United States,” Cooper said. “Over 50 Americans schools have done this now following the lead of Brown University.”

In 2003, Brown University President Ruth Simmons appointed a Slavery and Justice steering committee that was charged to investigate the university’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade

The final report, released in 2006, recommended a series of measures, including the creation of a Centre for the study of slavery and injustice, rewriting Brown’s history to acknowledge the role of slavery, creating a memorial to the slave trade in Rhode Island and recruiting more minority students. 

Georgetown, Yale and Columbia universities are also investigating their past.

CTO Lifetime Achievement Award for Rita Cox

CTO Lifetime Achievement Award for Rita Cox

Educator representing the NDP in federal elections

Educator representing the NDP in federal elections