Dalhousie University probes founder's record on slavery and race as it marks bicentennial

As Dalhousie University enters its third century, it's making a commitment to inclusion and racial diversity - even as it digs into a problematic past.

Lord Dalhousie called black refugees 'slaves by habit and education'

Dalhousie University president Richard Florizone has tasked a panel with examining the racial legacy of the university's founder. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

As Dalhousie University enters its third century with a public commitment to inclusion and racial diversity, it's also digging into its own troubled past.

The university launched its bicentennial celebrations at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax Tuesday with a performance of Mi'kmaq dancing and drumming and a video display celebrating the accomplishments of its black graduates. George Elliott Clarke, Canada's former parliamentary poet laureate and one of Dalhousie's most famous black alumni, performed a poem summarizing the university's history.

Dalhousie's president praised the university's founder for establishing a small college by the sea that is now a renowned seat of learning.

"That decision itself was bold and visionary, spending precious public dollars on books and a college," Richard Florizone told the crowd of about a thousand people.

President strikes panel

What the university didn't want to talk about was the panel Florizone has tasked with researching what the school's founder — George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie — said and did on questions of race, racism and slavery.

Dalhousie University is marking its 200th year. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

In a letter now in the Nova Scotia Archives, Lord Dalhousie calls black refugees who fled the U.S. during and after the War of 1812 "slaves by habit and education" and suggests they go back to their owners.

"His description of  them as lazy, his attempt in a sense to depopulate, to actually remove the black population from Nova Scotia, I think is something that has to be acknowledged," said Isaac Saney. He teaches African Nova Scotian history at Dal and is a member of the black faculty group that suggested the president appoint a panel to probe the matter.

Lord Dalhousie received approval from the British Crown to establish Dalhousie University on February 6, 1818. (Dalhousie University Photograph Collection, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia)

Lord Dalhousie's feelings about black refugees went well beyond words. As Nova Scotia's governor, he called on the British government to return the refugees to the U.S. or send them to Sierra Leone. According to the Nova Scotia Archives, he dropped the idea after visiting them and discovering that "none of them are willing to return to their masters, or to America."

A campaign of depopulation

Lord Dalhousie later arranged for the refugees to be resettled in Trinidad and campaigned to convince them to leave. But the vast majority of black settlers who came to Nova Scotia during and after the War of 1812 chose to stay — refusing to go to any country where slavery still existed.

In a letter from the Nova Scotia Archives, Lord Dalhousie calls black refugees who fled the U.S. during and following the War of 1812, 'slaves by habit and education.' (Nova Scotia Archives)

Dalhousie's director of communications declined an interview request, saying the panel's work is not yet complete.

"Lord Dalhousie's views on higher education were progressive for his time, although we know that his comments on race and the African Nova Scotian community deserve examination," said Brian Leadbetter in a statement. "We believe it's important to look back to understand our past, so that we can learn from it and move forward."

Panel prompted by American protests

The panel was prompted in part by recent agitation and protests on American campuses with past ties to the slave trade.

"Princeton, Yale, Harvard, University of South Carolina, University of Virginia ... and the Canadian schools were mum on this," said Afua Cooper, the panel's chair.

For the past year, Cooper and her team have been digging through the provincial archives. They've also visited archives in England and Scotland and even Dalhousie Castle in Edinburgh.

They're planning to present their report next month. It's expected to make recommendations on how Dalhousie University can make amends with its past.

"We have a history that's rooted in looking at marginalized people with disdain," said Cooper. "And so this is how the past is tied to the present."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that Lord Dalhousie called black refugees who fled the U.S. over the War of 1812 "slaves by habitat and education." In fact, he wrote they were slaves "by habit and education."
    Feb 21, 2018 10:39 AM AT

About the Author

Kayla Hounsell

Senior reporter

Kayla Hounsell is a Network Reporter with CBC News based in Halifax. She covers the Maritime provinces for CBC national news on television, radio and online. She welcomes story ideas at kayla.hounsell@cbc.ca.