Saint Mary's class visit to The Gambia uncovers little-known chapter of Canadian war history

  The faculty and students in this year’s Geography International Field School.

The faculty and students in this year’s Geography International Field School.

What started out as a geography lesson is also turning into a fascinating Canadian war history exploration for a class of 11 students and two faculty members at Saint Mary’s University. 

Students in this year’s Geography International Field School (GEOG 4100) are departing Halifax today (Nov. 8) for a study trip to The Gambia, returning November 20. Soon after arriving in Banjul, the students will attend a Remembrance Day ceremony for Gambian war veterans in the Fajara War Cemetery. They are bringing Canadian poppies and several wreaths to commemorate at least 10 Canadians who are buried at the cemetery.

The buried servicemen were with the Royal Canadian Air Force and died during World War II. They served with the 200 RAF Squadron, which played a significant role in deterring German U-boats in the Western Atlantic Ocean.

At least one of them has a Nova Scotia connection: Warrant Officer Basil Ralph Yorke, who died March 11, 1942, was the son of Harry and Gertrude Yorke of Wharton, Cumberland County.

“This may be one of the first times that Canadians will be there on November 11 to place remembrances on these gravestones,” says Dr. Cathy Conrad, a professor in the SMU Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. “When we first started planning this trip, we didn’t even know Canadians were buried there. The more we look into it, it’s like pulling a thread from a sweater and we keep unravelling it to find out more. It’s a piece of our history that had possibly been lost or at least not very well known until now.”

The students continue their research into the fallen airmen; they plan to visit a small war museum in the area and speak to Gambian veterans for recollections of the Canadian presence during the war. After the Remembrance Day activities, the class will travel to rural areas to visit a number of community-based tourism sites for experiential learning on cultural and historical issues. 

Saint Mary’s University has a longstanding relationship with The Gambia, which made the news last week as the first stop on a royal tour of West Africa for Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. The SMU Geography Field School has been travelling there for eight years.

Saint Mary’s University celebrates the new Viola Desmond Bursary

African-Nova Scotian students attending Saint Mary’s University will soon have more support available to them as a result of a newly established bursary.

The Viola Desmond Bursary was announced on November 8, the date of Viola’s heroic anti-discrimination action in 1946. The bursary is fully-endowed and will be given out every year to full-time African-Nova Scotian students at Saint Mary’s.

“At Saint Mary’s, community is at the heart of what we do. We are very proud to be part of commemorating Viola Desmond, and to have a financial award named in her honour,” said Dr. Malcolm Butler, Vice-President, Academic and Research. “This award will assist generations of African-Nova Scotian entrepreneurs attending Saint Mary’s on their path to success.”

The initial award amount will mark the year of Viola Desmond’s anti-segregation action, 1946, with students receiving $1,946. While this award is not renewable, it may be awarded to the same student more than once.

While preference for the bursary will be given to students in the Sobey School of Business, the bursary may also be awarded to students in programs featuring entrepreneurship. Preference will also be given to female students from Halifax County. Students must also have a financial need.

This award was established with the permission of the Desmond Family and through the generosity of The Honourable Wilfred P. Moore, Q.C., LL.D., and Ms. Jane Adams Ritcey.

“Viola Desmond has been very good to our city, our province and our country,” said Senator Wilfred Moore. “My family is very pleased to assist Saint Mary’s University in this most noble virtue—the transfer of knowledge. We do so in keeping with the bedrock tradition of Saint Mary’s, offering a hand up.”

Saint Mary’s collaboration with Innu Nation seen in documentary film screening

The rain could not keep a full house away from Halifax Central Library’s Paul O'Regan Hall on Nov. 3, 2018. Saint Mary’s faculty, Innu Nation, and members of the local community came to hear the story of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Innu Nation. The documentary screening of “Nakatuenita: Respect,” was co-produced by Richard Nuna, Innu Nation, and Dr. Trudy Sable, Community Conservation Research Network - Saint Mary's University and directed by filmmaker Kent Martin. 

The evening began with a traditional Mi’kmaw prayer by Mi’kmaw elder Thomas Christmas and Mi’Kmaw song to welcome participants onto traditional Mi’kmaq territory. Innu Nation’s Grand Chief, Gregory Rich, Dr. Trudy Sable, Saint Mary’s Community Engaged Research Facilitator and Saint Mary’s Vice-President, Dr. Malcolm Butler also welcomed the crowd.

Throughout the screening you could hear engaged asides between front-row members of the crowd.. The film – which ended in a standing ovation – tells the story of Ntesinan, a once peaceful territory where Innu families lived in tents, hunted for survival, and learned “Nutshimit” (country) skills and the fragile relationship between humans and animals from their elders. Their culture is one of respect – respect for the land, plants, animals and each other.

Although the memories of the past remain strong, the Innu now adapt to cultural and spiritual disruption. In the mid 20th century, they were forced to settle into communities by the governments and the church.  A significant part of their territory (later flooded by The Churchill Falls Hydro Project) changed the great falls known to the Innu as “Mista Shipu” forever.

“This film is a very powerful and moving testament to the impact that resettlement, development and climate change has had on Indigenous culture and communities,” said Dr. Butler.

Successful in taking control of their schools in 2009 and income support two years ago, the Innu look to the future of their land, social services, schools and government.

“Their resilience has amazed me in the face of so many forces that have tried to undermine who they are as a people, deeply and spiritually connected to their lands and to the animals. We have much to learn about how to truly work together in collaboration and mutual benefit,” said Dr. Sable.

In the meantime, the answer for Grand Chief Gregory Rich is clear.

“The film is a message of the struggle today for the Innu people. Our connection is to the lands, to the animals, and it has been our culture for many, many years. I know we can not go back to how it was before, but to be part of the land and the animals is the answer to our struggles, Ntesinan,” said Grand Chief Rich.

Saint Mary's 1977-78 men’s basketball team inducted into NS Sport Hall of Fame

  Members of the Saint Mary’s Huskies 1977-78 Men’s Basketball Team.   In photo: Head Coach Brian Heaney, Assistant Coach Willie Follette, Managers, John Landry and Calvin Smith, Trainer Richard Bishop and the players, Ron Blommers, Bruce Holmes, Tom Kappos, Derrick Lewis, Ross Quackenbush, Roger Tustanoff, Mike Solomon, and Frank White.

Members of the Saint Mary’s Huskies 1977-78 Men’s Basketball Team.

In photo: Head Coach Brian Heaney, Assistant Coach Willie Follette, Managers, John Landry and Calvin Smith, Trainer Richard Bishop and the players, Ron Blommers, Bruce Holmes, Tom Kappos, Derrick Lewis, Ross Quackenbush, Roger Tustanoff, Mike Solomon, and Frank White.

You could not make this stuff up.

It was a packed house with 11,000 fans jammed into the newly-minted Metro Centre in downtown Halifax in 1978. Two Nova Scotia university basketball teams were locked in a pitched battle to win the national championship.

Fans were divided with half cheering for Saint Mary’s Huskies and the other for the Acadia Axemen. Both teams were stacked with talent, spirit and a hunger for victory.

Acadia took the lead early in the game, but Saint Mary’s fought back and defeated their opponents to win the CIAU title 99-91.

On Friday, Nov. 2, the 1977-78 Men’s Basketball Team was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame, 40 years after a victory that will go down in history as one of the most exciting university sporting events in Canada.

All but a few of the team members returned to Halifax from all over Canada and the US to receive their honour at the Halifax Convention Centre.

They were presented with their honour by Owen Carrigan, who served as President of Saint Mary’s University that year and Doug Wright, a long-serving member of the Saint Mary’s Sport Hall of Fame Committee.

“It was the greatest game ever played at a college level in Canada,” said Coach Brian Heaney. “That CIAU national title took basketball to another plateau in Canada.”

Even 40 years later, players and fans remember that night. Saint Mary’s was the host team and seeded last. The magic ignited when they defeated the top-ranked Manitoba Bisons (92-81) who were favoured to win the championship. In the next round, they beat the University of Victoria Vikings with a score of 82-79.

That earned them a spot in the final against the Acadia Axemen. It was a grudge match and a showdown of hometown rivals, according to player Rick Plato.

“If you wrote it up for a movie you wouldn’t believe it. We were two power houses, tough, determined, confident skilled and talented,” he said.

With a victory and winning score of 99 points, they set the record for most points scored in a final game. That record was not broken until 2016.

“It was the time of our lives,” remembers player Tom Kappos. “We were a bunch of 18-year old Canadian kids, and this entire stadium was overflowing with people, fans, emotion.”

That game and season didn’t just change varsity basketball in Canada. It changed the lives of certain players too.

“It changed my life after being in the US,” said player Frank White. “People here were warm, welcoming, kind, they treated me with love and respect. Everyone had such a sense of purpose. In our hearts, we knew we were going to win that game.”

Player Ross Quackenbush, who later went on to coach men’s varsity basketball at Saint Mary’s, called that night the highlight of his career. Looking back at pictures, he laughs about the styles of 1978.

“Back then it was the time of short shorts and long hair. Now the shorts are long, and the hair is short.”

Whatever the fashion, that night was all about basketball. Player Ron McFarland received the Most Valuable Player award, finishing with 38 points.

The Saint Mary’s team were victorious in a game that will never be forgotten by either team or the 11,000 fans.

The Saint Mary’s team were: Ron Blommers, John Brown, Bruce Holmes, Derrick Lewis, Tom Kappos, Ron McFarland (MVP) Rick Plato, Ross Quackenbush, Art Screaton, Mike Solomon, Roger Tustanoff, Mark Vickers, and Frank White; (Coaches) Brian Burgess, Brian Heaney, and Willie Follette; (Managers) Hector Corkum, John Landry, Calvin Smith and Allan Wentworth; (Trainer) Richard Bishop; and, (Team Doctor) Dr. David Petrie Sr.

We’re all in this together: Collaborating on social studies education

More than 300 social studies teachers took part in “Calling All Citizens”, their annual provincial conference hosted October 26 for a fourth year at Saint Mary’s University. 

“I think we would all agree that social studies education is more important now than ever,” said Maureen McNamara, a Cape Breton teacher and president of the Nova Scotia Social Studies Teachers Association (SSTA). “We must continue to help our students not just to understand our rapidly changing world but their role as citizens. In doing so, we must create safe spaces for discussion and debate, not argument and polarization.”

The event included a trade exhibition, 30 workshops – including 10 led by Saint Mary’s professors and staff – an AGM and several off-site sessions at locations such as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre. The day began with a spirited keynote on fostering ‘civic competence’ and community service in Canadian schools, by Dr. Alan Sears, Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of New Brunswick.

Dr. Margaret MacDonald, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, welcomed the teachers to campus and highlighted the sessions led by Saint Mary’s professors and staff: “We're talking about Mi'kmaq music and art, human resilience in the face of mental health challenges, competencies related to intercultural learning, strategies for accommodating racial and religious differences, field schools in The Gambia, and even sessions off-campus such as the hands-on archaeology at Grand Pré National Historic Site,” she said.

Nova Scotia teachers, museums and educational organizations lead the other workshops.  

“Together, this roster offers teachers of all grades a rich professional learning day that can only benefit our students in the end,” said Wendy Driscoll, conference co-chair. “The SSTA is proud of our partnership with Saint Mary's University because it brings together teachers and professors for the common purpose of student achievement.”

These connections are a highlight of the annual event for Joe Bellefontaine. The Grade 9 teacher at Riverview High in Sydney has also taught with the Chignecto and Annapolis Valley school boards, and has a SMU Bachelor of Arts degree in geography and geology.

“People in universities are leaders in their field, so it's great to see their ideas and what they’re working on,” he said. “They have access to different resources, and they're really willing to talk to teachers and to make those connections with public school systems.”


For more highlights, see
@NSSSTA on Twitter and the conference agenda