Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia black history course a first in Dal's 198-year history

The new three-credit, second-year history course starts in January and will be taught by Isaac Saney, a Dalhousie University history professor.

New three-credit, second-year history course starts in January and is taught by Prof. Isaac Saney

Dalhousie University Prof. Isaac Saney developed and will teach the African-Nova Scotian history course. (Sherri Borden Colley/CBC)

For the first time in its 198-year history, Dalhousie University in Halifax will offer a course about the black experience in Nova Scotia.

"Dalhousie really has never had a dedicated course to African-Nova Scotian history," said Isaac Saney, a Dalhousie history professor who developed and will teach the course.

"There have been special topic courses where you may teach a course for this semester or that semester but it's never been an official course on the books. So, that's always been an anomaly that we wanted to correct."

The new three-credit, second-year history course starts in January. It will begin with the story of Mathieu da Costa, the first black person reported to have arrived in Nova Scotia in the early 1600s. Da Costa was a multi-lingual interpreter.

Slavery legacy in Canadian history

The class will survey the history of slavery in Nova Scotia, as well as the large migrations to Nova Scotia of Jamaican Maroons, Black Refugees and Black Loyalists in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and the later the influx of Caribbean immigrants to Cape Breton in the 1920s to work in coal mines and the steel factory.

"I think if one looks at blackness in Canada, because of the overwhelming numbers that exist of people that have immigrated from the Caribbean and Africa in Toronto, we forget about this foundational experience here in Nova Scotia," Saney said.

Though slavery was outlawed throughout the British Empire in 1833, Saney said the legacy of this dark part of Nova Scotia's history still exists.

"The disadvantages, the disenfranchisement, the racist attitudes, the racist segregation — that did not disappear," he said.

Rocky Jones's autobiography was compiled after he died by his friend James Walker. (Submitted by Fernwood Publishing)

Important for knowledge to be passed on

Other central themes in the course include land claims and the role of the church in the black community.

Reading material will include the autobiography of the late Burnley "Rocky" Jones. Jones was a lawyer and one of Nova Scotia's most vocal civil rights leaders. He died in 2013.

Margo Miller, a third-year psychology student at Dalhousie University, will be one of the first students to take the course. Miller, who is black, grew up in Jordantown, Digby County.

She said she is excited the course is open to anyone to learn about the province's rich African-Nova Scotian history and culture.

"Personally, I would just like to get an overall good background of the Nova Scotian black history here so … that knowledge can be passed down to other generations," Miller said.

Miller wants people outside of the black community to be able to put both the deep-rooted injustices against black people and the accomplishments of African-Nova Scotians into proper perspective.

"The more that they understand black history, the better they can understand black people here in Nova Scotia, so therefore they can have less ignorance here in Nova Scotia regarding racism or whatever the case," she said.

The new three-credit, second-year history course starts in January. (Isaac Saney)


Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email