Lifeboats and life lessons

- December 9, 2008

Peter Dalglish returned to Dalhousie this fall to receive an honorary degree. (Danny Abriel Photo)

When Peter Dalglish first arrived in Halifax in 1980, his reaction was culture shock. The aspiring law student had graduated from the Berkeley, the heart of the radical student movement in the 1960s. Never mind the cold weather – in some ways, Halifax seemed like a whole other planet.

“It was not quite California,” he laughs. “But I sensed right away the rich, authentic culture in this city. It quickly became a very special place to me.”

When Peter Dalglish last arrived in Halifax this October, it was a sort of homecoming for the globetrotting humanitarian. Receiving an honorary degree for his visionary work helping children around the world, he spoke to Dalhousie’s newest graduates of the need to become global citizens. He also took time to speak to Dalnews about his past, present and future.

Recalling his time as a student with Dalhousie Legal Aid Clinic, Mr. Dalglish says studying law in such a hands-on fashion emboldened his activist streak. In particular, he cites his experience working alongside fellow activist Elizabeth May on the landmark “Herbicide Case,” which prevented Dow Chemical from using Agent Orange as herbicide in northern Nova Scotia.

“The courtroom was packed with [Dow Chemical’s] lawyers from Manhattan, and here we were, working above a pizzeria in Sydney preparing this case,” he says. “It was like we were practicing guerilla law. I was proud to be part of it.”

A law career was not in the cards, though. Inspired by images of famine in Africa in the mid-1980s and compelled to help, Mr. Dalglish organized an airlift of supplies to Ethiopia. On the day he was called to the bar in Nova Scotia, he booked a one-way ticket to the Sudan. There was no turning back.

Since then, his resumé is dwarfed only by the good his works have done. He’s organized humanitarian assistance for children displaced by drought in Darfur. He’s set up training schools for street children, transforming pickpockets and petty thieves into mechanics and electricians. He started a courier service for street kids, having them deliver mail and newspapers into offices they once broke into. He founded Street Kids International, a global leader in designing self-help projects for poor urban children. And currently, he’s working with the South Asia Children’s Fund to combat child labour in Nepal.

Mr. Dalglish’s work as a “social entrepreneur,” as he calls it, has brought him face-to-face with humanity’s greatest scourges: poverty, disease, famine, environmental degradation. But far from discouraging him – they’ve only emboldened his desire to make a difference. “There are no lifeboats,” he says. “We’re all in this together.”

What gives him such hope? Primarily, it’s the generation of young people he sees coming of age.

“The message I share with young people is to be passionate, whatever you do,” he says. “I want today’s students to use their schooling to make the world a better place. The fact that young people are doing such extraordinary things – people who are 20, 40, still in college, but changing the world in their own ways – is wonderful. This is the generation that will seize the day and take on the big issues; I’m sure of it.”


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