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Fighting old battles

Twenty years might have gone by, but Black Nova Scotians still face many of the same barriers to education that they did in 1989.

This was one of the realities up for discussion at a workshop organized by the Black Student Advising Centre (BSAC). The workshop examined Breaking Barriers, a report that brought the centre into existence.

More than 30 people met last Friday to discuss how far along the fight against systemic racism at Dalhousie University has advanced.

Wayne MacKay, a professor at the law school, set the tone with his introductory remarks.

“The most important kind of accommodation is systemic accommodation,” he said. Lifting a person in a wheelchair above a flight of stairs may solve one problem, but building a ramp makes the building accessible from then on.

He said these systemic changes are what are needed at Dalhousie.

MacKay chaired the 1989 Task Force on Access for Black and Native People that put together the Breaking Barriers report.

As recently as 2006, the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies said the enrolment level of Nova Scotian black students at Dalhousie is low.

David Divine told Nova News Net that the disadvantaged position of blacks needs to be “systematically examined.”

The M.C. of the event, former BSAC advisor Barbara Hinch-Hamilton, said the workshop on Friday was supposed to bring the report back and find new ways to move forward on it.

“It hasn’t been a document with wheels,” she said. “It was done, some things were implemented and then it was stopped.”

The report was written on the basis of a six-month long consultation process that took the Task Force members all over the province to hear from Black and Mi’kmaq community members, on their own turf.

“The perception of Dalhousie … in the various communities that we visited was really not a very positive one. It was seen as … elitist, remote, alien, aloof,” MacKay said.

One of the presentations they heard in March 1989, by Darrel Bowden on behalf of the Black Canadian Student Association at Dalhousie, is included in Appendix Two of the report.

“Being Black Canadians, more specifically Black Nova Scotian, it is important that we are not to be categorized with all minorities, or even other blacks, in the same terms,” Bowden wrote.

“There is a significant difference between growing up as a black majority in Africa, than growing up as a black minority with a slave history in Canada.”

MacKay, in his speech, said the recommendations in the report prioritized programs that would help indigenous blacks.

“They were clearly, in 1989, the most underrepresented” at the university, he said.

In creating this distinction, the Task Force honoured the requests of the black students.

Last week, The Gazette examined the controversial claim that students’ opinions are no longer valued when the university makes decisions affecting the Black Student Advisory Centre.

The centre’s website says the first committee to select a black student advisor consisted of members of the Black Canadian Students Association and Dal administrative staff. It is not clear whether any subsequent hiring committees included the student voice.

There are concerns that students’ complaints about the non-indigenous black student advisor, Oluronke Taiwo (profiled in the companion article in this edition) are dismissed for being xenophobic.

Keslyn Adams, who works as the secretary of the BSAC, says students’ dissatisfaction with Taiwo are not xenophobic, or racist, at all.

“There are more than a few African students who have also expressed their concerns with the centre under her management, and one has even said so to senior administration at the university,” Adams wrote in an email. She has been on sick leave for two weeks.

The next Gazette investigation will focus on the meat of student’s complaints against Taiwo as an academic advisor, a personal counsellor, and an events organizer. Reporters are relying on students who have experienced Taiwo as a counsellor and leader of the centre, to speak up.

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