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Breaking Barriers, 30 years later

On the long journey towards justice, there are often flashpoints: moments where long-burning embers of anger and frustration catch sparks, and turn into fire and smoke that simply cannot be ignored.

Thirty years ago, in 1989, the Marshall Inquiry became one such flashpoint. Donald Marshall Jr. from Membertou First Nation was convicted in 1971 of the murder of African Nova Scotian man Sandy Seale, and then acquitted in 1983. Marshall’s conviction was such an egregious miscarriage of justice it inspired a Royal Commission. Its report laid bare the breadth and depth of the obstacles Indigenous peoples faced—not only in the justice system, but in Nova Scotian society more broadly.

“It was the first wrongful conviction commission in Canada, and it shone a spotlight on systemic racism problems in the entire justice system in Nova Scotia—from police investigations to the court of appeal, and pretty much everything in between,” says Naiomi Metallic, the Chancellor’s Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy at Dalhousie. “It’s been an important touchstone that we continue to come back to, highlighting what’s been done since, and what hasn’t.”

Naiomi Metallic, Chancellor’s Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy (Aaron MacKenzie-Fraser photo)

“It was the first wrongful conviction commission in Canada, and it shone a spotlight on systemic racism problems in the entire justice system in Nova Scotia.” – Naiomi Metallic 

At the same time the Marshall Commission was undertaking its work, another soul-searching report was in development—this one on campus at Dalhousie. In February of 1989, then-President Howard Clark commissioned a task force to study and report on the university’s role in the education of the region’s Black and Indigenous peoples. The task force was given an ambitious mandate: to review existing programs and resources on-campus, consult extensively with community, students and university leaders, and propose a strategic plan to address its findings—all in just four months. (It ended up taking six.)

The haste was necessitated by uncertainty surrounding the Transition Year Program, which since 1970 had provided a one-year pathway program for African Nova Scotian and Indigenous students. A community-inspired initiative, the TYP’s existence had often been precarious, rarely more so than in the late 1980s when its funding situation was dire and two contradictory internal reviews left its future in serious doubt. “There were cynics in the university, and some in the community as well, who thought the role of our committee was simply to weigh in on the Transition Year Program,” says Wayne MacKay, the law professor tapped to lead the task force when its original chair stepped down due to other commitments. “They thought we were a cost-cutting measure. Suffice to say, it didn’t turn out that way.”

Instead, the task force’s report, titled Breaking Barriers, became something of a flashpoint moment of its own within the university’s continuing story. Wide-reaching in its scope and analysis, it exposed just how distant the university was seen as from the African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities it was trying to serve, how deeply those communities felt like Dalhousie wasn’t a place for them. Its recommendations did support strengthening of the Transition Year Program, which today remains a crucial component of Dal’s commitment to expanding access to education. But its recommendations went much further. For example, together with the Marshall Commission, the committee championed the fledgling Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq (IB&M) Initiative in Dal’s law school as a critical measure to increase representation in the justice system. And it responded to students’ demands for dedicated Black student supports and space, which resulted in the establishment of the first Black Student Advising Centre on campus.

Following the release of the Breaking Barriers report, social worker Beverly Johnson was appointed as Dal’s first adviser for Black students in 1990. (Courtesy Dal Archives)

Some aspects of Breaking Barriers read as antiquated today (particularly its terminology of “native” and “Micmacs”). Other elements, like its heartened attempt to both explicate and educate about systemic racism, read just as true and important today as they must have at the time. Thirty years on, as the IB&M Initiative and the Black Student Advising Centre mark anniversary milestones, their legacies remain a testament to the spirit of 1989, just as their work remains as vital as ever in 2019.

Michelle Williams has served as director of the IB&M Initiative since 2004—half of its lifespan now. In 2018, during Dal’s 200th anniversary, she helped celebrate the initiative’s 200th graduate. This year, she’s helping organize special events to mark its 30th anniversary, sharing with great pride the initiative’s commitment to an increasingly organic circle that binds together academia, practice and community. “We now have 30 years of lawyers out doing incredibly important work in their communities and really transforming the legal profession,” says Williams, a faculty member in the Schulich School of Law.

Michelle Williams (Danny Abriel photo)

“We now have 30 years of lawyers out doing incredibly important work in their communities and really transforming the legal profession.” 

The process developing the IB&M Initiative in 1989 coincided with consultation for the Marshall Commission and the Breaking Barriers report, and both reports strongly encouraged its continued development and funding. At the time, there were less than a few dozen practising Black lawyers in Nova Scotia, and there had only been a single Mi’kmaq graduate from Dal’s law school. Since then, up to 12 aspiring lawyers have entered law school through IB&M each year. Part of the program’s success is that it provides funding and academic support to students, but Prof. Metallic says the community building and networking component of the program is every bit as critical. “There’s something really special when you create a critical mass,” says Prof. Metallic, herself a graduate of the program. “The graduates continue to have these connections to each other, a network that supports each other, raises each other up. There’s really strength in numbers.”

Fighting unfair stereotypes about its recruits through the years, the program and its graduates continue to inspire change, whether working directly on Indigenous issues or simply by being part of the legal profession. Today, 64 members of the Nova Scotia Barristers Society are Mi’kmaq or Aboriginal as of 2018-2019 (2.2% of total lawyers) and 79 are African Nova Scotian or Black (2.7%). Four IB&M alumni have been appointed to the judiciary: three to the Nova Scotia Provincial Court (including one recently appointed to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court Family Division) and one to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

“Meaningful, supported access to legal education is a critical aspect of access to justice,” says Prof. Williams. “It’s about developing the legal skills, training and opportunities that can lead to truly transformative change.”

Barb Hamilton-Hinch is a faculty member in the School of Health and Human Performance whose research includes access issues in education, particularly with respect to Black communities. Thirty years ago, as a student, she was an executive member of the Black Canadian Students Association on campus. The executive was commissioned to write and present a position paper to the Breaking Barriers committee on how Dal could better meet the needs of growing (but still disproportionately low) numbers of African Nova Scotian students.

“The need was so great,” says Dr. Hamilton-Hinch. “If it wasn’t for the Black Student Advising Centre, I think a lot of us probably wouldn’t have finished university. We didn’t see ourselves represented in the classes as students and professors, on the varsity teams, but we at least had a place we could go and let out whatever was happening to us that day.”

Dr. Barb Hamilton-Hinch (Danny Abriel photo)

“The need was so great. If it wasn’t for the Black Student Advising Centre, I think a lot of us probably wouldn’t have finished university.”

When it launched in the fall of 1989, the Black Student Advising Centre (BSAC) shared a small corner of the Student Union Building with the Accessibility Centre. The space was limited, but the way it provided a “home away from home” for Black students—many of whom commuted from rural communities—made it an essential part of the university community very quickly. After graduating, Dr. Hamilton-Hinch would find her way back to BSAC, serving as its director for nearly a decade before handing over the reins to its current director, Oluronke Taiwo. Known as “Ronke” to most, Taiwo is a familiar face at Dal convocations, attending every ceremony to cheer on her students with an enthusiastic cry of, “Walk it, baby! Walk it!”

“I say that because they have cried on my shoulder, and I have known when they’re going through hardships,” she says. “All their lives, systemic racism is what they’ve gone through. When they come to campus, they can find themselves in a class where maybe, out of 500 students, there’s only one or two others who look like them. Some of the students have come to me after experiencing that saying, ‘I’m done, I can’t do this.’ I’m the one telling them, ‘You can do it.’”

“They have cried on my shoulder, and I have known when they’ve gone through hardships. I’m the one telling them, ‘You can do it.’” —Oluronke Taiwo

Today, BSAC shares a house on Edward Street with the Indigenous Student Centre, hosting two computer labs, a meeting room, a lounge and other offices. Taiwo organizes scholarship receptions, Writing Centre workshops, a mentoring program, birthday parties—even a special Open House-style campus visit program for Black students across Nova Scotia. “I want them to have the full university experience—not just the not-so-good things that can sometimes happen around them,” she says. “When we come together like that, we have the time to relax, to talk, to eat, to get to know each other more. It makes it about a lot more than advising—it’s where students support each other. It’s that home away from home; it’s a community.”

Community was at the heart of the Breaking Barriers report. Wayne MacKay, today professor emeritus in the Schulich School of Law, remembers the extensive meetings in community halls and church basements alongside his fellow task force members Tony Johnstone (who passed away during the report’s production), Julia Eastman, Janis Jones-Darrell, Viola Robinson and Scott Wood.

“We knew early on we wanted to hear extensively from the communities, and the message we heard was very clear that this was not just an aberrant thing,” recalls Prof. MacKay, a past chair of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. “This is a systemic, ongoing problem in Nova Scotian society, in broader society, and in Dalhousie as a subset of that, and that the kinds of changes really needed to make a difference would need to be systemic. They would need to involve spending money and setting up programs.”

Wayne MacKay (Danny Abriel photo)

“We knew early on we wanted to hear extensively from the communities, and the message we heard was that this was not just an aberrant thing. This is a systemic, ongoing problem …”

Looking back, he also acknowledges an obvious truth: that as a white man, his appointment to chair the panel would not be just controversial but near-unthinkable today. (“And rightly so,” he adds.) “I was mindful that I couldn’t speak to others’ experiences, and to not claim anybody else’s voice, but to report what we discovered and try to be a conduit for the direct community messages we were hearing. Many within the Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian communities had been making these same points for years—they weren’t being listened to.

“Early in the report, I wrote about bridging the cultural divides, and that didn’t just mean mainstream white culture and the Mi’kmaq culture and African Nova Scotia cultures. It meant the university culture, which is a kind of culture unto itself. Things needed to change.”

He also acknowledges that, as is often the case with reports of its kind, not all of what was put forward was brought into action. But he’s proud of what came out of the task force’s work, and that the Breaking Barriers report itself continues to be cited in subsequent diversity and inclusion work at Dalhousie. “Together with the Marshall Commission, which our work intersected with, you had these two complementary processes that worked to confront racial barriers that existed, with constructive ideas about how these institutions should address them,” he says. “It was a critical mass of change.”

In another 30 years’ time, we may look back on 2019 as another flashpoint, another moment that represents a critical mass of change. The past five years of Dalhousie’s story have been increasingly shaped by important work in equity, diversity and inclusion. Dal’s Strategic Initiative on Diversity and Inclusiveness… the Belong report… the Bombay/Hewitt report on access… work to close gaps in labour-market representation… efforts to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action… the hiring of Dal’s first vice-provost of equity and inclusion… and, most recently, the completion of the Lord Dalhousie panel, with recommendations that echo the Breaking Barriers report’s calls for Dal to continue to strengthen its relationships with African Nova Scotian communities.

Last year, the committee behind a new Indigenous Strategy for Dalhousie presented its work to Senate, and work is underway to help bring that strategy to the implementation phase. Led by co-chairs Professors Keith Taylor (Mathematics and Statistics) and Patti Doyle Bedwell (College of Continuing Education), the committee published a report last fall informed by uuniversity- and community-wide consultations. Several recommendations were made regarding relationship-building, curriculum and program development, and scholarly and creative work. Some aspects are already being implemented. For example, the university is currently in the process of hiring a director of Indigenous community engagement, who will be responsible along with an Indigenous Advisory Board for addressing the recommendations suggested. Prof. Williams, meanwhile, is institutional lead on developing an African Nova Scotian strategy for Dalhousie, one that’s extra timely given Dal’s proclamation recently of the UN Decade for the People of African Descent. At the heart of that planning process, says Prof. Williams, is the recognition of African Nova Scotians as a distinct people. “And it’s about working with the community, centering community engagement,” she adds.

Dr. Hamilton-Hinch serves on the African Nova Scotian strategy committee with Prof. Williams. As someone who’s been around for both Breaking Barriers and Dal’s current initiatives, she sees both the challenge and the progress.

“Dalhousie is doing a better job in providing opportunities for developing a better sense of inclusion and belonging, but it’s going to take time,” she says. “In one sense, it’s disappointing that we still need a place like BSAC in university, based on the oppression and discrimination students continue to experience. But it’s heartwarming to know that students can find a space that’s safe, that’s inviting and where they belong. And it’s encouraging to see the mentoring that happens in that space; you see the impact they have on one another and how successful they can be.”