Nova Scotia

Here's exactly what Dal President Peter MacKinnon wrote about blackface

Dalhousie University’s interim president Peter MacKinnon defended himself against accusations of racism and calls for him to step down in his first interview on the subject.

MacKinnon says he 'regrets' controversy, but plans to serve his full six-month term

Peter MacKinnon speaks in this 2012 file photo. MacKinnon will serve as Dalhousie University's interim president for at least six months. (Canadian Press)

Dalhousie University's interim president Peter MacKinnon defended himself against accusations of racism and calls for him to step down in his first interview on the subject.

Speaking to CBC News Thursday, MacKinnon said he's mostly had a warm reception in Halifax — apart from the 20 or so students who turned up to protest his welcome reception last week.

"I do understand that some of what I wrote has caused some distress on the part of some of the students. I regret that. I wrote a book on contemporary and contentious topics and it was inevitable that it would be received with differences of opinion," he said in a phone interview.

Hayley Zacks of Dal Do Better, a student group calling for him to step down, said she also wants an apology from the hiring committee.

"My concerns were that he defended blackface, he's against divestment from oil and fossil fuel companies, but also the divest, boycott and sanctions movement against Israel," she said Thursday.

She said students weren't involved in the decision to hire him. 

There are three student representatives on Dalhousie's board of governors, which hired MacKinnon. They include the president of the Dalhousie Student Union, Aaron Prosper, who declined to be interviewed.

Here's what he wrote

MacKinnon said anyone who reads the book will see he doesn't support or condone blackface.

"I was interested in some of the issues around Halloween costumes and the responses to them. The responses to them range a great deal, from severe denunciation to perhaps a response that would say, 'Yes, impact matters, but so do intent and context and proportionality.'"

CBC News got a copy of his 2018 book, University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate and Dissent on Campus. In chapter three, he looks at three campus controversies over Halloween costumes.

In 2009 at the University of Toronto, five students dressed as the Jamaican bobsled team for a party. Five years later, some Brock University students wore the same sort of costumes. Of their use of blackface, MacKinnon writes:

"Its use has a long history and one frequently, though not always, viewed as racist. Here the students were not portraying Black persons in stereotypical, oppressed or disadvantaged situations. Nor is it likely that they were paying tribute to the participation of a tropical team in a winter Olympic sport that inspired the movie Cool Runnings. It was their use of blackface that ignited the controversy."

MacKinnon writes that at a Queen's University party, students dressed as "sheiks, guerillas from the war in Vietnam, Buddhist monks, Mexicans and other national or ethnic peoples."

"If there was insensitivity to issues of race in the selection of costumes by party-goers at the three universities, there was also a lack of proportion in the responses to them. These were Halloween costumes, not cultural misappropriations, Nazi mimicry, or manifestations of disapproval of other peoples. So describing them risks diminishing real problems of intolerance, discrimination, and racism. It also risks backlash from a bewildered public observing these episodes," he writes.

Faculty association questions hiring process

David Westwood, president of the Dalhousie Faculty Association, said his group has no objections to MacKinnon. They do object to how such senior leaders are hired by the board of governors during an in-camera meeting.

"Our problem with closed-door procedure is it's not clear which questions have been asked and how the candidate may have responded," he said.

The university told him they do the interviews in-camera to protect the privacy of the candidates, who may not want their current employer to know they're seeking a new post.

"We don't have any issues with the individual per se. He has a long history of being a university president in the past. He has very strong credentials," Westwood said.

"Unfortunately for Peter, it's probably going to undermine his term as interim president."

Support for Truth and Reconciliation Commission

MacKinnon, who is also a lawyer, said the accusation that he doesn't support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is false.

"I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work was vitally important and I think most of its recommendations are excellent," he said.

"But there are some that would lead me to pause for reasons of how they're going to work out, and what their constitutional implications are."

He said the criticism over his comments about unions likely come from his questioning of student unions calling for a boycott of Israel. He said that goes far beyond representing student interests and that some Jewish students might not want to pay fees to support such a call from their union. 

"I'm not speaking out against student unions. My heavens, I believe strongly in the important of student unions," he said.

MacKinnon will be the interim president for six months as Dalhousie searches for its next permanent president.