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On Belonging

We have an expanded package of content On Belonging for you, featuring videos of speakers and expanded print interviews. For the shorter version, as it appeared in the print version of DAL Magazine, read on below. To access the expanded content, go to

What does it mean to  belong? That’s the question Dal posed to thinkers we invited to campus as part of a year-long conversation. We’ve captured some of their thoughts here, along with reflections from members of the Dalhousie community. The conversations were rich and thought provoking, and while we only have room for excerpts on these pages, you can access full interviews and videos of speaker presentations here.

What does belonging mean to you?

Dr. Craig Steven Wilder
Professor and author of Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities
I think in part, especially in the context of the university, it means something more than inclusion or representation. It means being in a space that’s actually willing to adjust to my presence and reflect upon its own traditions, its own history and its culture to make sure that my presence can actually be respected in that context. It’s the willingness of an institution to not just have my presence but to respect and embrace my presence by actually changing in response to my being there and to other people being there.

I think we hide behind “tradition” a lot, and we weaponize tradition and turn it into a kind of slogan that protects us from these kinds of challenges. What I want from a university, what I want for my job and for my students, is that the university comes to understand that the challenge of diversity is actually about really rethinking who we are, constantly, and reacting to the changing realities of a modern university campus.

Portrait: Aaron McKenzie Fraser

Mark Tewksbury
Olympian and humanitarian
Belonging has all kinds of different meanings. I think I choose to see it in a positive way, as being a part of something and sharing common values and common purpose. That opens you up to all sorts of inspiration and expansive thinking. You could look at belonging as ownership; you belong to me, I belong to something, which suddenly changes the dynamic entirely. It becomes far more restrictive and limiting. Belonging can be alienating, possibly, as in if I belong to this, I can’t belong to that. At the same time, it creates possibility. If I don’t belong to that, I must belong somewhere, so where do I belong? I think it’s an interesting notion. I’m choosing the positive, belonging to the highest possible entity, the community where everyone can feel like they can also belong.

Portrait: Aaron McKenzie Fraser

Why does belonging matter in today’s world?

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard (MSW’77)
Social worker, senator and advocate for social change; first African Nova Scotian to hold a tenure track position at Dal
If we want to become a society where inclusion is a forethought, not an afterthought, we have to have a society where everyone belongs—no matter who they are or no matter what they bring into the space that they’re occupying. It’s about people being truly valued for who they are, and where they’re allowed to be themselves, to develop their full potential. Each human being in this world and in this country deserves that basic sense of belonging. I consider that a basic human right. Yet we know there are exclusionary practices that can have debilitating impacts on people’s lives and consequently limit potential, limit opportunity. I believe that if we get to a place where we see differences as assets and not liabilities then we’ll have created spaces where people normally “othered” will truly belong.

Temple Grandin
Animal scientist and advocate for people with autism
You’ll be lonely otherwise. And I think you need to be doing things in the world of “real” things, not just sitting at home and doing it on social media. Some of the happiest times I’ve ever had was working with the guys trying to figure out how to build some stuff, how to invent some stuff.

Portrait: Aaron McKenzie Fraser

When have you most felt like you belonged?

Senator Murray Sinclair
Lawyer, senator and chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)
Most of my life, I was raised in an environment in which I was very successful: I was a top student, a very good athlete, and I participated in all of the sports and the teams. I was held in high regard by my teachers. I felt like that was the right thing to do, I felt like I belonged in that path, that that was my future.

But where I lost that sense of belonging is when my children were born. When my first child was born, it made me realize that here I am, holding this Indigenous child, and I don’t know how to help him become an Indigenous man. That’s when I realized that we don’t belong in this kind of life. We need to figure out a way where we can still participate in this day and age but as Indigenous people, as Anishinaabe people. And so that became my challenge, as a young father. And that’s been my life’s ambition with all of my children, to help them to see how they can live in this day and age and still be true to their identity.

Rick Hansen
Paralympian and disability activist
One of the unique privileges I’ve had is learning from and being part of a community of people who happen to have a disability. I had an accident when I was 15, and so perhaps the greatest learning is that disability—whether it be visual, hearing, mobility, cognitive and other forms—knows no boundary. It happens to men, women, rich, poor, Black or white, Muslims, Catholics or atheists. At the end of the day, it happens to Canadians, Chinese, Israelis, Arabs. I really believe that disability is truly a common, unifying force in a diverse society.

Therefore, the more we recognize and appreciate and respond to and move the dial on attitudes and stigmas related to disability—from old models of pity and lack of worth or meaning to a sense of normalized view that what really matters is ability—we remove barriers to full society and full participation. So, I’m privileged to be able to actually work through those core understandings through learning how to live with a disability, learning how to work with others to help make a difference, and pay it forward to our community as a whole both nationally and globally.

What is the single biggest threat to building a belonging society?

Buffy Sainte-Marie
Singer-songwriter, humanitarian, Indigenous leader
The inflexibility that comes from a lack of exposure to good information resulting in a general lack of understanding on either side. But see, I think we can fix it. Multicultural sharing of food, sports and science and art and films and music and dance and cool new stuff and new friendships and good vibes — we have all the things to be proud of. Look what Gord Downie did with his life. To reach across that huge gulf from Chanie Wenjack to Gord’s huge hockey-player audience, who are not very much exposed to Indigenous issues or to my kind of music. He closed that particular gap. And it’s wonderful for both sides!

Patricia Doyle-Bedwell (BA’91, LLB’93)
Lawyer, writer, first Mi’kmaq woman to earn tenure at Dalhousie
I think one of the biggest threats is misunderstanding. I think about that in terms of being Mi’kmaq, and that there are people who don’t understand us. And because people don’t understand our history, where we come from, our values, our culture, our language—they tend to be afraid of what they don’t understand.

I find that when I talk to people from other cultures, I’ve found the similarities between us are stronger than the differences. In the Mi’kmaq context, we’re all part of the circle, and we all bring our unique perspectives and experiences to that circle. But we all need to be there for the circle to be complete.

That’s how I see Dalhousie: a huge circle, and we all need to understand that we are all bringing something constructive to the conversation and to the experience. When I’m teaching, I try to tell my students that: you have a unique perspective, and where you fit and where you belong is important in doing your work here. You’re part of this bigger circle. We all need to be there; we all need to be talking to one another.

Portrait: Aaron McKenzie Fraser

shalan joudry (MES’17)
Performance artist, community ecologist and author of Generations Re-merging
The biggest threat to a belonging society is how society would be exclusionary. For example, for me, being part Indigenous, Indigenous education in the public school wasn’t inclusive. When I grew up, Indigenous topics were always framed as “they.” When textbooks or teachers referred to Indigenous people, they said “they.” However, while mentioning European settlers, it was always a reference to “we” and “our” ancestors. It meant that I was “they” and not “us.” I always felt excluded somehow That didn’t make me feel like I belonged in the classrooms, the school, or those communities where I was attending school. That’s just one example.

We have to question how we make sure that people can feel and be a part of our society and communities. We have to ask ourselves continuously: how do we be inclusive? And it’s not always obvious. It takes other people to say, “Wait, what about us?” or “What about this?” You have to work to make sure that all people can see themselves recognized in the laws of society, the arts, education, business the people in service, in government, so on and so forth.

What one change could we make as a society to improve belonging?

Jen Powley (MPlan’09)
Author of Just Jen: Thriving Through Multiple Sclerosis and Dal alumnus
I think eliminating the costs of university and post-secondary programs would allow people to see that it is not intellectual ability that confines people in the multiple restraints that so many people have to live with. There are people who are childcare workers rather than teachers not because they are less able to run a classroom, but because they cannot afford a four-year university degree.

Portrait: Aaron McKenzie Fraser

What’s one thing that individuals can do to foster belonging?

Howard Ramos
The first thing is to be self-reflective and foster an ethic of humility. That means being open to things you don’t understand, challenging yourself to question your own assumptions, to reach out and try new things that are different. Humility is also about recognizing that sometimes you’re not going to agree and that’s okay. But you can still respect someone for their difference. What I worry about in terms of our contemporary moment is that we’ve lost humility, and we’ve become too comfortable in the positions we hold, on all sides. And that’s shrunken the space we share together.


Portrait: Aaron McKenzie Fraser

Interviews by Ryan McNutt, with assistance from Matt Reeder and Stefanie Wilson