Dalhousie sits on unceded Mi’kmaq territory, and is surrounded by African Nova Scotian communities with hundreds of years of history. For decades, programs and initiatives like the Transition Year Program (TYP), the Schulich School of Law’s Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative (IB&M) and others have created pathways for young people from these communities into higher education. But gaps remain, and much work still needs to be done.
Recently, the university created two new community engagement roles: one focused on Indigenous communities, the other on African Nova Scotian communities. The individuals hired—Catherine Martin (BA’79) and Jalana Lewis (LLB’13)—are both Dalhousie alumni who have spent their lives dedicated to service, support and making a difference. We had the two of them sit down with Vice-Provost of Equity and Inclusion Dr. Theresa Rajack-Talley for a conversation about their personal journeys and Dal’s responsibility to build connections with Nova Scotia’s historic communities.
This interview has been edited for length.
Meet the participants
Theresa: You’re both Dalhousie alumni from very different disciplines: Catherine in Theatre, Jalana in Law. How would you say that your Dalhousie experiences set you on a path towards where you are today?
Catherine: I was a very young, naïve girl who came from the United States: born in Florida, raised in Massachusetts. So coming here was a shock. I had never been away, never been in an apartment, never been on a bus. I came from a really small town. And all my life I was very, very shy. I couldn’t speak in front of people. I used to apply for theatre plays in high school, and never got the role—I always become the usherette.
I saw at Dal that I could actually apply and get into a Theatre course and I didn’t have to audition first. There, I learned a lot about relaxation and how to prepare your fourth wall so that, when you have to be in front of anybody, I could get used to speaking in public. I also met a lot of wonderful people, a lot of artists. I learned a lot about technical stuff, but I would say the greatest part of my first few years at Dalhousie University was the people I met and the friendships I made. I still have several of them, and in fact one of them I’m married to. That, obviously, has been a big impact on my life. I found that being with artists helped shape me and help me see the world in a very different way, to accept everyone’s differences.
Jalana: Law school got me thinking about how to work smarter, and not necessarily harder. I’d never worked as hard as I had in my first year of law school, academically, and when I got my grades I’d never received such low grades before. I realized that working that hard wasn’t necessarily the answer.
My experience at Dal really taught me how to figure out how to change the way that I think and how to identify, quickly, the best approach to learning for the environment. I’m not an all-nighter, I’m not a workaholic, I’m not someone who can study for 12 hours a day without moving. But sometimes it felt like law school really promoted that type of work ethic. I had to figure out how to take the way that I learned and mould and shape it so that I could do well in this new environment. So that has made me very adaptable past law school. I came out knowing that if faced with a very challenging situation, I could probably figure things out.
I also got to learn from my peers. Talking about politics, talking about case law and things like that with people from Alberta, from British Columbia, from the North, from all over, it just gave me a very different perspective and got me thinking and questioning my initial reactions to certain cases and readings and thinking about things in a bigger picture.
Theresa: You’ve also both lived lives defined by service: giving back, being involved, working towards something bigger than yourselves. Where do you think that drive inside you comes from?
Catherine: I was raised with two wonderful parents—and there was eight of us kids, so you had to have drive. My father raised us to stick up for people, always. Anytime anybody was being treated badly since we were a kid in the neighborhood all the way through each school, he’d encourage us to raise that and bring it forward. My mom taught us always to give, to serve; she was in 4-H, Cub Scouts, she was the den leader of everything. I feel like I’m quite privileged in the way I was raised. I wasn’t rich, but I was raised by the best people in the world.
And so, with that privilege, I feel that I should give some of that back. My service is to human beings and to make this world a better place for us but also, as in our culture, for the next seven generations. I’ve been invited and asked so often to do work in my community. I’m often the person that helps with funerals and sings, and I think that gives you that connection to the community that cares about you, loves you, helps makes you want to do for people.
Jalana: I would say it comes from my parents as well. I was the kid who was dragged along to all of the community meetings, the church meetings, the meetings in reaction to things that government was doing that were impacting African Nova Scotian community. So I grew up accustomed to conversations around how can we change this? How can we fix this? How can we respond to this?
My parents, both did not come from much. Neither of them went to university. But with me and my sister, it was so important to them that we always remain active in our communities and always be giving back even in small ways, and that just remains something that was very natural for me and my sister. My mom is a retired teaching assistant, and my dad is a cab driver, but they served on boards, my mom taught four-year-olds in a Head Start program and then she would still volunteer on weekends and nights within the community.
Theresa: Your positions are both focused on “community engagement.” What does “community” and “engagement” mean to each of you?
Jalana: I think engagement, for me, it means creating and maintaining real relationships—listening, sharing, and being a bridge between people. Thinking about what people really need in terms of where they actually are at the time. Engagement needs meaningful relationships, meaningful communication. I think community can mean so many things for so many different people, but in terms of the African Nova Scotia community, it can mean something as simple as your last name. You can know so much about a community member’s roots just based on their last name.
And community might not necessarily be where you are. When I lived in Toronto, I always thought of my community as the African Nova Scotia community. Regardless of where I am, I know at the end of the day, the minute I come home. I just go right back into that community. So it’s not as if I take the hat off and put it back on. Regardless of where I am, it’s always a part of me.
Catherine: I often think about community as my family—not just my immediate family, but the Mi’kmaw nation is my community. It means that I have a connection and that I belong. And as is the way of the Mi’kmaq, we all consider ourselves family and related. Community means to accept who you are, how you are, that you meet people where they are at. That’s what I love about the Mi’kmaw community. You’re never alone and you’re always taken care of.
I believe that community keeps me feeling grounded and safe. Dalhousie has a community and when I come here I have a lot of connections, and not just Indigenous faculty and staff. So that is another kind of community to me. And it’s important to engage with community because, otherwise, we’re all floating around in our own little bubble. We’re not figuring out how all of us are engaged in working together as a greater group and figuring out how to move forward.
Theresa: How do you think of Dalhousie’s particular responsibility, as a university in Nova Scotia, in relation to Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian communities?
Jalana: As an excellent academic institution that continues to grow, continues to thrive, continues to become more of a national and an international school, I think the university has a responsibility to ensure that populations and communities closest to it also thrive and grow with the institution. It would be strange if members of the African Nova Scotian community weren’t welcomed, invited, encouraged to be part of that journey, whether that be a students, staff or faculty.
I think there’s a responsibility for the university to do the work necessary to make sure that members of the African Nova Scotia community—who have historically kind of been left out, I think, of the growth of the school—to make sure that people feel like they’re part of that growth as well. Because Dalhousie’s history and future also shapes Nova Scotia’s history and future, it also shapes Halifax, the region. And so we want everybody to be living here to be part of that growth.
Catherine: Dalhousie has a responsibility to go into the community. I think that the universities and the academia and students are ready to find out who we are instead of resisting us, trying to put us down and keep us out. The word “outreach” bothers me. That means you’re putting your hand way out there, but you’re not really going in. We need to go in, and we need to make the universities truly universal so that people that come from all around the world will be able to find out who we are.
Theresa: Often, the Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian communities can get lumped together, sometimes as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour). Why is it important to focus on them as distinct groups?
Jalana: There are similarities, and that’s a beautiful thing, but there’s also differences, which is beautiful as well. Our histories, our stories, even where we’re located geographically, are different. How we share, how we gather, how we celebrate, how we mourn—those things are different. So I think it’s important to recognize that if we really want to find ways to welcome, to engage, to bring people on this journey along with the university, I think we have to meet people where they are. That means we have to recognize differences between communities that have been historically marginalized.
Catherine: I love that the Black community of Nova Scotia is very intertwined with us, sometimes literally through marriage and relationships. And we have this history of being placed and forced on land in that nobody else wanted or away from where people wanted land. We have some amazing things that we share, but if we keep grouping us together we’re going to lose out on who we are as individual groups.
Theresa: How do you think Dalhousie today, in terms of its connections and links with Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian communities, differs from what you saw when you were each a student here? And where would you like to see it be in five or ten years?
Jalana: I definitely appreciate all of the work that’s happened before me around programs like TYP and IB&M initiative—programs that have changed my life, and the lives of many people around me. For me, a lot of my engagement as a Dalhousie law student, my engagement of the African Nova Scotian community was bred out of student activity and student planning, student activism, and we also see that within staff and faculty as well. So I hope that students, staff and faculty are supported by administration, by university leadership, to actually do that engagement so it doesn’t happen from the side of our desks. I would hope that in five to 10 years it becomes part of the university culture to support students, staff and faculty to engage with the African Nova Scotian community.
There’s a T-Shirt that [African Nova Scotian soul singer] Cyndi Cain created that says, “We Been Here.” And it’s a very simple concept but I think because a lot of people didn’t know our history. We’re finally starting to kind of share our story and share it with each other. And, because of that, we’re starting to see our rightful place. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to find an African Nova Scotian family doctor if I want to, or an African Nova Scotian therapist or physiotherapist if I want to. And so as much as we’ve seen growth in African Nova Scotian graduates, faculty and staff, administrators, people in positions of leadership, I think we could definitely improve. I’d like to see folks entering the university and staying within the university and growing professionally within the university, so that folks like my parents and others can seek services from members of their community who understand them and understand their experiences as well.
Catherine: When I was in university, there was maybe a handful of Mi’kmaw or Indigenous students at Dalhousie University in 1976. We had no faculty, professors, staff. Through the many jobs I’ve had at Dalhousie, I’ve seen it change, and I’ve seen more students come. But I’ve seen a lot of people come and leave, too. We come with a lot of pain when we come to this university and the experience here can trigger a lot of bad things—things not just our own, but through generations. Five hundred years of resistance and imposing a different value system on us—there is so much we have to undo or deconstruct and take a different approach, and that’s going to be huge change.
Ultimately, you have to see yourself here. You have to feel that you’re as important and that you are not less than everyone else. I’d hope that we find a way to be partners and build relationships so that Dalhousie University in five or 10 years has become not just part of the solution but has provided the knowledge that this university has, this incredible knowledge, to help us in what we need as Mi’kmaq communities. It’s time to walk with us beside us and let go of some of the things that have prevented us from feeling like equal people, equal human beings.