Nova Scotia

Report on slavery, racism at Dalhousie calls for apology, reparations

A Dalhousie University panel's report on the school's history of racism and links to slavery recommends the university create a provincial slave-trade memorial and rename streets and buildings after people of African descent.

Recommendations include slave-trade memorial, renaming streets, buildings after people of African descent

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

A panel that has spent the last 3½ years exploring Dalhousie University's history of racism and links to slavery has issued its final report, calling for an apology from the Halifax school, a provincial memorial of the slave trade and other forms of reparation.

The panel aimed to find out more about the man from whom Dalhousie University derived its name, George Ramsay.

Ramsay, the ninth Earl of Dalhousie, who was also known as Lord Dalhousie, was known to be pro-slavery and made disparaging remarks about Black Refugees from the War of 1812 who settled in Nova Scotia.

In the report, the panel urges the university to apologize to Nova Scotia's black community, in particular those who are descendents of the Black Refugees of the War of 1812, who faced social and economic exclusion when they arrived in Nova Scotia after siding with the British in the war.

The recommendation includes specific wording to be included in the apology: "We are sorry for the university's and its founder's connections to slavery and for the anti-black racism that continues to occur at Dalhousie University and throughout the province."

Dalhousie University marks its bicentennial last year as the panel probed the school's problematic past. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

The report also asks Dalhousie's board of governors to encourage all levels of government in the province to apologize for anti-black racism, and to request that the province create a slave-trade memorial, as well as a plaque or other commemoration acknowledging the role the West Indies trade played in the economies of the region.

"The work that went into researching the project and writing the report was hard labour, but it was a labour of love, underscored by a deep commitment to racial justice," wrote the report's lead author and the panel chair, Afua Cooper.

"The challenge now is for the university to implement the recommendations we put forward here."

Other recommendations include:

  • Naming and renaming rooms, buildings, streets, parks and gardens on campus and in the city and province after people of African descent.
  • Establishing awards and scholarships to honour black people.
  • Commissioning art on the black experience in Nova Scotia and an exhibit on slavery and the history of the Black Refugees.
  • Ensuring first-year students are exposed to Dalhousie's connection to slavery and history of racism.
  • Creating the Gabriel Hall Centre for the Study of Slavery and Abolition.
  • Establishing financial support for black Nova Scotian students at Dalhousie.
  • Increasing recruitment and retention of black faculty and staff in positions of importance.
  • Building stronger connections between the university and black Nova Scotian communities.

What the panel did not recommend, though, is changing the university's name.

"The panel grappled with the question of whether the university could divorce its present self from the actions and legacy of its founder," the report reads. "Despite its name, the university has moved forward to better respond to the call for equity, diversity and inclusiveness."

Recommendations 'critical,' university says

In a statement, the university said the recommendations will be "critical in informing our path forward" and that they will be embedded into the school's strategic plan.

"Today, on behalf of Dalhousie University, I apologize to the people of African descent in our community," reads the statement. "We regret the actions and views of George Ramsay, the ninth Earl of Dalhousie, and the consequences and impact they have had in our collective history as a university, as a province and as a region.

"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."

Panel's findings

The panellists' research led them to museums and archives in Nova Scotia, Ottawa, Edinburgh and London to delve into Lord Dalhousie's past and the school's links to slavery and racism.

In addition to founding Dalhousie University in 1818, Ramsay was lieutenant-governor of the province. In an 1816 letter to his superior, Ramsay wrote that Black Refugees were "slaves by habit and education" and that "their idea of freedom is idleness and they are therefore quite incapable of industry."

Lord Dalhousie's racism was evident in the meagre food rations he distributed to the Black Refugees and the small, poor-quality farm lots he gave them — just three to four hectares, compared with the 40 hectares of superior land given to white settlers.

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)

He also wanted to return Black Refugees to former slave masters in the U.S. or deport them to slave colonies in the West Indies.

The report details how Nova Scotia's economy at the time was reliant on the slave trade, as merchants traded goods like fish, beef and pork with West Indian slave plantations in exchange for slave-made products such as rum, sugar, molasses, cocoa and coffee. The revenues of that trade funded infrastructure in the province, as well as the construction of Dalhousie College, which was later renamed Dalhousie University.

Dalhousie was the first university in Canada to explore its past connections with slavery, although others have since launched their own inquiries.

About the Author

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca