Nova Scotia

Dalhousie panel on slavery recommends apology, but no name change

The panel exploring the history of racism and links to slavery at Dalhousie University presented its key findings and recommendations on Monday.

Panel chair Afua Cooper says Dalhousie is 'not the same institution' it was in 1818

A panel is researching George Ramsay, the Earl of Dalhousie, who established Dalhousie University in 1818. (Dalhousie University Photograph Collection, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia)

The head of a panel tasked with exploring Dalhousie University's history of racism and links to slavery says the group will recommend that the school issue an apology, but will stop short of suggesting that Dalhousie change its name.

The panel has dug deep to learn more about the man from whom Dalhousie University derived its name — George Ramsay, the ninth Earl of Dalhousie, also known as Lord Dalhousie. Ramsay was known to be pro-slavery and made disparaging remarks about Black Refugees from the War of 1812 who settled in Nova Scotia.

Chair Afua Cooper said the panellists had "extensive discussions" about whether to suggest a name change, but ultimately decided against it.

"The name Dalhousie University is no longer associated with this gentleman from Scotland," said Cooper, who is also the James R. Johnston chair in black Canadian studies at Dalhousie. "When people think Dalhousie University today, they're thinking about the research that it does, the Nobel Prize-winners that it has produced, not about Lord Dalhousie, who had really, really derogatory ideas about black people."

Cooper said the school is "not the same institution" it was when it was established in 1818.

"Hundreds, if not thousands of black people from Canada and all over the world have passed through Dalhousie. They have gotten distinguished degrees. They are lawyers and doctors and accountants," she said. "Folks like these … helped to create a new Dalhousie University. They helped to create a diversity that today aspires for equity and inclusiveness."

Afua Cooper is the chair of the Scholarly Panel to Examine Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race and the James R. Johnston chair in black Canadian studies at Dalhousie University. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Cooper said the cost of changing the school's name was also a factor, and the panellists felt the money could be better used for scholarships or hiring faculty.

Isaac Saney, the director of Dal's Transition Year Program and a contributor to the panel's yet-unpublished draft report, said changing the university's name is not his priority. 

"I'm more concerned with the university acknowledging very meaningfully this history and, more importantly, putting in place programs and policies and resources that can address the legacy of this history," he said.

But the panel's draft recommendations do include an apology from the university to the African-Nova Scotian community. Both Cooper and Saney said although it is not included in the recommendations, they would personally like to see an apology from the province, too, for the impact of slavery on Nova Scotia.

"It left a profound and powerful impact on the province because it established a constellation of social practices, world outlooks and historical patterns that have continued to plague the African-Nova Scotian community," said Saney.

Isaac Saney is a historian at Dalhousie University and Saint Mary's University. (CBC)

Panellists conducted research about Lord Dalhousie and the school's links to slavery and racism at museums and archives in Nova Scotia, Ottawa, Edinburgh and London.

During one of her stops at the Age of Sail Museum in Port Greville, N.S., Cooper saw shackles used to keep slaves taken from Antigua by the Maynard family to work at the cooperage and blacksmith shop in the area.

"I'm thinking, here in Nova Scotia! … Here are these shackles," Cooper said. "It's such a hidden history. I thought I knew a lot about slavery in Canada. But investigating it now as part of the Lord Dalhousie inquiry, it just blew my mind because there's so much I didn't know and there's so much we discovered."

The panel also learned of Lord Dalhousie's role in "brutally" re-establishing slavery in the Caribbean island of Martinique and his attempt to send emancipated black people in Nova Scotia back to their previous enslavers in the U.S. 

"Lord Dalhousie had his belief about black inferiority and the natural status for black people was that of enslavement," Cooper said.

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)

The Black Refugees who fought or worked for the British during the War of 1812 were promised they would be transported to British colonies at the end of the war. Those who came to Nova Scotia faced social and economic exclusion, and were given rocky land and scant seeds, implements and rations.

"The black people were doubly, if not triply marginalized and excluded as a result of some of the actions of Lord Dalhousie."

One of the legacies of slavery that stands to this day on the university campus is the university president's house on Oxford Street. Cooper said like many roads and buildings in the province, the house was originally built using money made from trading in slave-grown commodities such as rum, molasses, coffee, cocoa and sugar.

Cooper said Nova Scotia's trading economy "put us at the very heart of the slave system."

Dalhousie was the first university in Canada to explore its past connections with slavery, although the University of King's College subsequently launched its own inquiry.

Saney said he hopes other schools in Canada will follow suit, including McGill University, whose founder, James McGill, had slaves.

The panel's draft recommendations also include providing more funding and support for black studies, professors and students, acknowledging the contribution of Black Refugees, and teaching about slavery and racism at all levels of education.

The panel will conduct a series of consultations before releasing its report in June.


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