What became the “most important (educational) program ever” for Nova Scotia’s black and aboriginal communities began inauspiciously enough in a duck blind in the middle of the Nova Scotia nowhere.
Dalhousie University’s Transition Year Program—a unique-for-its-time scheme to bring marginalized black and native students into the academic mainstream through a year-long process to “transition” them into university—celebrated its 40th anniversary this past weekend with a reception, symposium, dinner and dance.
Its conception was decidedly more humble.
In October 1968, Rocky Jones, then a black radical student activist, invited his friend Jim Walker, then a freshly minted white Dalhousie grad student, for a duck hunting weekend. “Rocky is an avid hunter,” Walker jokes today. “I am not.”
They built a lean-to but it was so cold they zipped their sleeping bags together and even invited Rocky’s Labrador retriever into the bag to stay warm.
“I should mention,” Walker adds, “we had a bottle of rum we passed back and forth.”
They talked through the night—about Mississippi freedom schools, the fledgling American “head start” school programs, a recent report documenting the shockingly low numbers of black Nova Scotians in university…
At some point, remembers Jones, they concocted a scheme that—after two years of discussion and the perhaps surprising support of then-Dalhousie president Henry Hicks—became the Transition Year Program.
Today, Jones is one of Canada’s most prominent civil rights lawyers, Walker is a history professor and author of the seminal book on Nova Scotia’s black loyalists, and TYP is a model for programs across North America.
Its most important accomplishment, Jones suggests, is that it helped foster a cadre of educated local black and aboriginal grads who returned to their own Nova Scotia communities and became leaders there.
Is the program still needed?
Yes, says Jones. But it needs to return to its roots. In recent years, it has admitted more students from outside Nova Scotia. Many don’t stay after they graduate. “We’re losing leadership,” Jones says. Which is especially troubling, he adds, at a time when many local black and native communities desperately need a new generation of educated leaders.
So a toast to TYP. To what it was. And still needs to be.
If you’d like to read more of Jim Walker’s recollections of the beginnings of the Transition Year Program, you can find his emailed response to my queries here.