Alumni Spotlight is a series of interviews conducted with members of the Dalhousie Alumni Association.
Nickname: You might know him as The Honourable James Cowan, Q.C.
Class of ‘62
BA (1962), LLB (1965), LLM (London School of Economics, 1966), LLD (honoris causa, 2009)
Current role: Senator and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate of Canada
Dal Gazette: What inspired you to get involved in public service? What do you enjoy most about it?
James Cowan: I have always been involved in public service and community service, and have always thought that I had an obligation to contribute to the community. I have been active in community service from high school, throughout my professional career and I see my engagement in active politics as a continuation of that. I like helping people and being exposed to new ideas.
DG: Why did you decide to attend Dalhousie?
JC: My dad was a Dal graduate and my grandfather was also a Dal grad. I was from Halifax and I always knew that Dal was a great university—I also knew from early on that I wanted to be a lawyer and Dal also had a wonderful law school. Particularly for undergrad, I didn’t even look at any other universities. In my day, getting into law school didn’t involve lots of entrance examinations, you just applied and if you got in, you went. I was pleased to get into Dal both for undergraduate and law school.
DG: Where did you live while you were at Dal?
JC: I lived at home.
DG: Where could you be found most often on campus while you were at Dal?
JC: I should say that I was most often found at the library. In my day, there weren’t the number of facilities that there are now, so when I was on campus, if I was studying I was in the Macdonald library (now the Macdonald building). I studied in what is now the Great Hall in that building, and I went to law school in what is now the Faculty Club—upstairs above what is now the Faculty Club was the law library. I also could be found at the Student Union Building [SUB]/men’s residence which was a low-slung building behind Wickwire Field. The centre of my social life was definitely the fraternity I belonged to—Phi Delta Theta.
DG: What was your biggest distraction while you were at Dal?
JC: Although the university was much smaller when I was a student than now, I grew up in Halifax, and when I arrived at university, I was surrounded by and exposed to people from around the world which was a whole new experience. It was distracting because meeting these people brought with it a whole new breadth of experiences and activities for me.
DG: Were you involved in student politics while you were at Dal?
JC: I was involved on the student council for several years, and was involved in the planning and raising of funds for the SUB. I also was part of model Parliament, and mock Parliament as it was called when I was in law school. I was involved in student politics at my fraternity and during law school played intramural football. The Dalplex didn’t yet exist but there was a gym and a rink on the site of Dal’s present-day rink.
DG: What was your favourite cafeteria food on campus?
JC: In my day, you didn’t really go to the university to dine, there wasn’t much to eat. There was “Daddy Atwood’s Canteen” on the ground floor of the men’s residence, which sold tea, coffee, burgers and hotdogs. When Howe Hall opened then you had a greater selection in the Howe Hall cafeteria, but I didn’t eat there much as I mostly ate at home or at my fraternity.
DG: Did you have a nickname at Dal?
JC: Not that I can recall—or not that I will mention…
DG: What is your favourite Dal memory?
JC: My favourite memory is being part of such a large community. While smaller than today’s Dal community, it was much larger than I was used to, and I also really enjoyed all the social relationships that I developed while I was there.
DG: How did your Dal experience prepare you for your current role?
JC: Both law and politics are about trying to deal with problems and trying to understand how other people think and try to come up with a practical solution: you need to persuade, not tell, people what to do. I learned these skills while at Dal. I also learned something about leadership by being involved in activities while in university and about how to work with people from varied backgrounds.
My Dal experience also made me appreciate the value of education and that is something which I have kept with me all these years. I have always been a supporter of Dal and of higher education and research. As I got involved on the Dalhousie Board of Governors, I got a greater appreciation of what is happening at Dal and other universities, and in my current role, I have the opportunity to celebrate and promote post-secondary education and Dalhousie.
DG: What do you see as the best thing about being a Dal alum?
JC: The association and the brand is strong, and as I travel, I realize how highly respected Dalhousie is across the country and around the world; when you say you went there they know where and what it is. Dal also encourages many students from outside Canada: when students come to Dalhousie for university and then go abroad, they become ambassadors for the university. That network is very important to me.
DG: Do you have any words of wisdom for current Dal students—something you wish you had known when you were a student?
JC: I am not sure if it is a word of wisdom, but while at Dal, make sure that you take full advantage of all that the university has to offer and it will stand you in good stead when you leave. There is a lot more to university than learning a trade. You learn skills in university, but also the way you learn and the ideas that are generated through that learning can be very useful as you progress through your career. I also think that Dal grads have an obligation to give back and to encourage others, and to be an ambassador for the university.