Black and African Diaspora degree program at Dalhousie may be first in Canada, professor says

A Black history professor at Dalhousie University says a proposal to expand the university’s Black and African Diaspora studies minor program into a full degree could make it the first program of its kind in Canada.

The current minor program started online in 2017 within the faculty of arts and social sciences. Isaac Saney, chair of the Black and African Diaspora Studies Degree Major Committee, is now working with other Black professors at Dalhousie on the final proposal for the full degree program.

“Then the idea came out," Saney said. "Why don’t we have a major where somebody can come in and graduate with a degree in Black and African Diaspora Studies?”

Saney said he had a role in creating the initial program, along with Dalhousie Black Faculty and Staff Caucus members Afua Cooper, Chike Jeffers, and assistant professor Vincent Simedoh. Saney said the program is “one of the first, if not the first '' of its kind in Canada.

As a minor program, Black and African Diaspora Studies can only be a small concentration of study within a larger degree.

“A major means the meat of your degree will be on Black and African Diaspora Studies,” Saney said. “It means you’ll have greater exposure, greater expertise in that area. So, Black and African Diaspora Studies would be on the same level as political science, sociology, and so forth.”

Black faculty members at Dalhousie first met in 2019 to discuss the Black and African Diaspora Studies major program.

Though similar degree programs have existed in the US for decades, first coming out of the Civil Rights era, Saney said the 2020 death of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter movement played a huge role in getting the ball rolling in Canadian universities.

“They were the largest demonstrations in US history. In Canada, I think the ruling elite, the establishment, was stunned at the demonstrations here," Saney said. "Because the demonstrations here weren’t just solidarity demonstrations with what was going on in the United States. They were saying, ‘These problems exist here in Canada.’”

In June 2020, Saney said members of Dalhousie Black Faculty and Staff Caucus included Kevin Hewitt, who was chair of the Dalhousie senate at the time, OmiSoore Dryden, the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, law professor Michelle Williams, Black studies professor Afua Cooper, and several others.

He said they were able to pass two important resolutions through the Dalhousie Senate.

One resolution would see the Black and African Diaspora studies minor established as a major degree program. A separate committee passed another resolution that saw the creation of Dalhousie's Black Studies Research Institute. Dryden is serving as its interim chair.

Though the research institute and the degree program are separate, Saney said they will work together.

“In March of this year we had an impasse where our degree went from being not even a ship on a distant horizon in my estimation, to something where it’s now very viable and we’ve gone into an acceleration process,” Saney said.

He said Dalhousie will soon make hire five new faculty members, one in each in the faculties of arts and social science, law, management, science, and health.

“You can't just say, ‘I’m going to have this course. They will have these new courses,’ because they don’t fall from the sky,” Saney said. “You have to have a program that’s viable with the existing courses and resources.”

“Because [with] hypothetical courses and proposed hires, we don’t know what they’re going to develop because each of them come in with their own specialization and focus.”

Saney said courses will include introduction to Black and African diaspora studies, a course in research methods, and a “capstone course that will be a seminal course that covers all of this sort of stuff.”

He said there will also be mandatory courses such as African Canadian studies and African Nova Scotian history.

“The degree itself, the very existence of the degree, will encourage people to create new courses that can then be added into the degree,” Saney said.

“We hope to develop over time an African Nova Scotian certificate at the beginning that will be open to everybody. Not just people in university but people in the community.”

Saney said the Black and African Diaspora Studies Degree Major Committee is in a consultation stage where the program proposal is receiving feedback.

Though he said some universities may have felt forced to create such programs, he feels others, including Dalhousie, are genuinely onboard with change surrounding anti-Black racism and Black inclusion in Canadian higher education.

“A lot of it has come from two things,” Saney said. “One is obviously the collective struggle of the community. George Floyd opened a profound window on these issues, so political pressure.”

“And also, once you have a program like that there’s going to be a demand for it. You can imagine people in larger Black communities like Toronto and other places wanting to take a course in which they can learn about the experience of Black folk. But you can also imagine in the United States as well, because Black Canadian Studies itself is a new field. It’s a rich field.”

Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Halifax Examiner