In November 2010, Dalhousie University’s Transition Year Program celebrated its 40th anniversary.
While researching a column to mark the occasion, I emailed James Walker, now a professor of history at the University of Waterloo and the author of the influential and ground-breaking Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia, to ask for his memories of how the TYP began. Here is his response:
I first met Rocky [Jones] on the sidewalk in front of the American Consulate in Toronto in March 1965, when we were both participating in a demonstration in support of the Selma march organized by the Friends of SNCC at the University of Toronto. Friends of SNCC, as I’m sure you know, was a Canadian support group for the American civil rights movement. Rocky returned that summer to Halifax and we fell out of touch for a while, but we renewed our friendship in September 1968 when I came to Dalhousie to begin a PhD in history.
Rocky, of course, is an avid hunter. I am not. Nevertheless I agreed to accompany him on a duck-hunting trip in October of 1968. He’ll have to tell you where we went, as it was all new to me. The first night out there were just the two of us. We built a lean-to (no sissy tents for us!), and after cooking some food over a fire we climbed into our sleeping bags. But it was very cold, so we decided to zip our two bags together for the warmth. Then we invited his Labrador Retriever, Pooh-Bear, into the double bag with us for a little more body heat. And I should mention that we had a bottle of rum that we passed back and forth, over the sleeping Pooh-Bear.
Perhaps because it was cold, or uncomfortable lying on the ground – anyway it was difficult to sleep. So we talked, and talked. We talked about the Freedom Schools in Mississippi, and the Head Start programs in some American cities. And so on. Some time during that night we “conceived” the idea of a program for Black school drop-outs in Nova Scotia, to facilitate their entry into university or at least to give them an additional year of education that would include Black history and culture and some basics in literacy and math.
For the next two days we shot ducks, having been joined by a couple of other regular hunting companions of Rocky. And continued our talking. And yes I did kill some ducks – four of them, which I took home proudly to my wife. She threw them in the freezer, and then into the garbage a year later.
When we returned to Halifax we got in touch with Jules Oliver, and together we established something we initially called “The Black Study Group” to discuss Black history and the general situation of the Black community in Nova Scotia. We held our evening meetings in the Dalhousie Student Union Building. The study of “The Condition of the Negroes of Halifax City” published by the Dalhousie Institute of Public Affairs was still fairly new, and it documented the educational problems faced by Black youths in the city and province. This was the focus of our discussions. There were other conversations going on in Halifax along similar lines, and we came together to produce a proper plan. Sylvia and Paul Norton, for example, were hosting discussions very similar to our own. Dr. Lem Sealey had come to similar conclusions. With the support of the Dalhousie Student Union and many dedicated members of the faculty, our “Black Study Group” and its affiliates were adopted by Dalhousie and became an official program in September 1970. Rocky and I both became teachers in the TYP that first year, 1970-71. The following year I left for a “real” job at the University of Waterloo. As long as Rocky was involved with the TYP I was kept in touch, as he and I have remained close friends now for 45 years, but when he left the program I lost my connection. Whenever I’m in Halifax I try to contact some of those TYP Pioneers, but there are some I haven’t seen since I moved to Ontario in 1971…
You’ll learn from others that Mi’kmaq students were added to the program during the planning stages, and that over the years the TYP became more formalized than it was initially. In our naive 60s optimism we thought we could interrupt the syndrome of disadvantage and launch new opportunities for Black youth in Nova Scotia in a short period of time. That disadvantage turned out to be much more entrenched than we realized. We never thought for a moment that the TYP would still exist after 40 years, and if we had we probably would have done something else! So it didn’t create a revolution after all, but it has produced 40 cohorts of Black and Mi’kmaq young people who are, I believe, better prepared to return to their own communities and assume leadership roles, and to advance their own positions through further education. It’s been good.