Dalhousie University is entering its 200th year, and the school and its faculties have planned a host of activities to celebrate the milestone. Leading the charge is Catherine Bagnell Styles, assistant vice-president, communication and marketing.
“I started at Dal about 7 years ago, and it was on my radar right from the get go. But I would say [planning started] about 4 years ago with like kind of a folder on the side of my desk. And as ideas came up or as people started talking about it, I just kind of quietly, unofficially started saving and looking for the best ideas,” she said.
“But the planning started in earnest I would say about 3 years ago. And we had a really lovely governance structure with a small steering committee but a huge planning committee, with representatives from all units, all faculties,” she added.
The highlights of the programming are what Bagnell Styles calls “signature events.” One of them, perhaps the signature event of the signature events, is called the Year of Belonging.
“The Year of Belonging is about all of us asking the question, ‘what would it take for us to create a community where we all felt like we truly belong?’ So really if you think about it, it’s kind of the conversation of our time, it’s the conversation you hear in our communities, it’s the conversation you hear in the news,” she said.
The Year of Belonging will include a series of speakers who will come to campus and talk about, in Bagnell Styles’ words, “their point of view on what it takes for us to create a world where we truly belong.”
Bagnell Styles wasn’t able to reveal all of the speakers, as she’s keeping their identities under wraps until the new year, but she did say that two of the speakers would be Murray Sinclair, the Indigenous politician and former judge who was the chair of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Indigenous singer-songwriter and activist.
Another of the signature events will be what the school is calling “the Great Debate.”
“That event will ask the question: ‘what is the final frontier?’ Space, as Captain Kirk might say, or the ocean?” The event will be emceed by science journalist, Jay Ingram, and have three experts for the space side and three for the ocean side.
In February, Dal is hosting the 20th anniversary edition of the African Nova Scotia Music Awards, in the Rebecca Cohn theatre.
Aside from the signature events, all of the faculties will be celebrating the bicentennial in their own unique ways.
Bagnell Styles said the Fountain School “has a new original play.” It’s based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818 – Dal’s founding year.
“One of our wonderful grads has taken that novel and rewritten an original piece of theatre,” Bagnell Styles said. Opening night is Mar. 27.
That’s not the only faculty doing its own thing: the computer science program is working on a project about closing the gender gap, the project aims at balancing the ratio of men and women in their classroom; continuing education is providing a community speaker series; the faculty of dentistry is opening a new clinic, which will tie into their special homecoming festivities; and the faculty of health is offering scholarships to commemorate the 200th anniversary, a celebrity community workout, and a big health and wellness fair.
The university is excited to celebrate the big event, but Bagnell Styles acknowledges there are elements of the Dalhousie’s past that deserve some more sombre consideration.
“[Milestones] are an opportunity to celebrate for sure your past, but also to reflect on your past. To think about what happened, maybe what you wish you’d done differently,” she said, “You know, I think people can relate to that.”
“So we can’t change the past, but we can change how we think about it, we can change how we talk about it, and we can reflect on it so that it helps us be better in the future. One of the things that we heard early on from people is don’t make the past only glory days, really dig deep.”
Perhaps one place that Dalhousie can dig deep into is the legacy of its namesake: George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie. He held derogatory views of freed slaves and members of the Mi’kmaq nation who lived in Nova Scotia, and also contributed to the British colonial presence in India.
Although she didn’t mention the 9th Earl of Dalhousie specifically, Bagnell Styles did speak generally about the at times disappointing past of the school.
“It’s one of the reasons the first speaker [for the belong forum] will be Craig Steven Wilder, who wrote this book called Ebony and Ivy,” she said. “His book is about racism and slavery in the US, as it relates to universities, but we want to honour the people that did well, and also honour the people who challenged us to do better.”
Bagnell Styles and her team have put a lot of work into Dal 200 – she’s confident it’ll pay off.
“The thing that makes me really, really proud of the work that the team has done is just the richness of the ideas,” she said. “The program for the 200th is as diverse as the community and the faculties that are a part of Dal. I know it’s an overstated statement, but I really believe there’s something for everyone in this program.”