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Meet the 2017 Dalhousie Alumni Award recipients

- October 13, 2017

Left-to-right: Alumni Award winners George Elliott Clarke, Susan Keating-Bekkers, Loran Morrison and Omar Gandhi. (Danny Abriel and Nick Pearce photos)
Left-to-right: Alumni Award winners George Elliott Clarke, Susan Keating-Bekkers, Loran Morrison and Omar Gandhi. (Danny Abriel and Nick Pearce photos)

Last night at the Alumni Dinner, the university celebrated four outstanding alumni with its Dalhousie Alumni Awards for 2017.

The awards, presented by the Dalhousie Alumni Association, honour alumni for their impressive achievements and the many and diverse ways they contribute to the university and to society. The awards include four categories: for lifetime achievement, volunteerism to Dalhousie, volunteerism to the community and for early career accomplishment.

Here's a look at each of this year's recipients.

Lifetime Achievement Award: George Elliott Clarke (MA’89, LLD’99)

The Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes alumni for exceptional accomplishments in career and community service.

George Elliott Clarke (MA’89’LLD’99) has a way of turning conversations about himself and his accomplishments into grand narratives honouring the African Canadian writers who stimulate him.

“My work,” he explains, “has been informed, inspired and compelled by the examples of other writers who may be very obscure. I see what I do as trying to exhume, excavate or bring into public consciousness the contributions of some really amazing African Canadians and ask us all to appreciate what they were able to accomplish.”

For nearly five decades, Clarke has been working to reclaim a legacy of what he calls Africadian writing that reaches back to the arrival in Nova Scotia of Black refugees from the Civil War. By unearthing previously undocumented religious writing and slave narratives, and celebrating the works of writers who came before him, Clarke has, as he puts it, “set the record straight that there was never any period of effective silence, that there were always intellectuals in our community. There were always people who published work.”

That in and of itself is a significant achievement, but Clarke’s accomplishments stretch far beyond his efforts to raise awareness of African Canadian literature, or establish it as a field of academic study. Through his writing — most notably the epic narrative poem Whylah Falls and his novel George and Rue, where he explored the racism that led his mother’s cousins to commit robbery and murder — Clarke has advocated for equality and freedom in ways that honour and build upon the heritage he has helped recover.

In turn, Clarke has been recognized with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellowship Prize, the William P. Hubbard Award for Race Relations, the Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry and the National Magazine Gold Medal for Poetry. He has also been appointed to the Order of Nova Scotia (2006) and the Order of Canada (2008), and he is the current Parliamentary Poet Laureate. To quote Frank Harvey, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, “He is a true Canadian icon who we should honour and celebrate as one of our own.”

The Dalhousie Alumni Association recently did so, presenting Clarke with its 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award. The news delighted El Jones, a professor, activist and writer whose own work has been influenced by Clarke.

“I don’t think there’s a Black writer in Nova Scotia that hasn’t been shaped by George,” Jones says. “It’s more than the time he takes to mentor and encourage young Black academics and writers. He almost singlehandedly gave a name to Africadian, or African Nova Scotian, literature, so he led the way in having people recognize that we have a distinct culture and a distinct literature to be proud of.”

Despite his desire to illuminate and to excavate, Clarke clarifies that his writing is motivated more by the desire to entertain than to be an agent of change. “There’s not much point writing if you’re not going to be able to entertain as well as inform,” Clarke says. “I consider myself to be an intellectual entertainer, or an artist intellectual, keeping in mind that art has, as its component, this notion of entertainment and trying to stir or provoke thought.”

Currently, Clarke is working on a poem to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Dalhousie in 2018 — one of many contributions he has made to the university over the years. “Dalhousie was instrumental in shaping my thought and influencing my approach to writing,” Clarke says. “In every major direction I’ve taken in my life, there is a Dalhousie connection at the root and that will never fade. I’ll always be very proud to have my Master of Arts degree, the honorary doctorate I received in 1999 and now a Lifetime Achievement Award, with hopes that there may be more achievement and life.”

To that end, Clarke is doing what he has always done: reclaiming history and exploring his roots through literature. He is in the midst of an epic poem about African heritage in the western world and he is planning a novel about Charles Spurgeon Fletcher, a Nova Scotian who became the first black professor at Harvard. More interesting is the fact that Clarke—a man who has dedicated himself to highlighting the lives and achievements of others—has recently completed his own memoir, an accomplishment that he looks upon with some degree of bemusement.

“I think I’m probably a bit young for it,” Clarke says. “Nevertheless, there it is. Memoirs and a lifetime achievement award, which I hope both might just be a little bit premature. I see myself as being, in midcareer and not a terminus, but it’s a very good feeling to know my peers believe I have a record of accomplishment. It encourages me to continue to try and do a bit more before my race is run.” (Photo: Nick Pearce)

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A. Gordon Archibald Award: Susan Keating-Bekkers (DDH’91)

The A. Gordon Archibald Award recognizes alumni for outstanding volunteer contributions to Dalhousie.

When Susan Keating-Bekkers (DDH ’91) heard that the future of a Dalhousie Faculty of Dentistry program providing hands-on experience to students and treatment to Halifax Regional Municipality newcomers was in jeopardy due to lack of funding, she knew she had to take action.

“It seemed such a shame to cancel a great teaching clinic, especially one serving people who have never received oral health care,” Keating-Bekkers recalls. “I reached out to the dean and asked what it would take to keep this program in place, and we worked together to create an endowed fund that would support it.”

That fund, the Oral Health Care Initiatives for Nova Scotia Immigrants, is one of many ways that this dental hygienist and Faculty of Dentistry instructor is giving back to Dalhousie. Through her extensive volunteer work and financial gifts, Keating-Bekkers is playing a key role in enhancing the university’s educational experience, providing assistance to students in completing their studies and ensuring that marginalized communities throughout the municipality have full access to oral care.

Her boundless enthusiasm, bold ideas and dedication to her alma mater have put smiles on the faces of faculty, students and patients alike, and have earned her the 2017 A. Gordon Archibald Award from the Dalhousie Alumni Association. The award recognizes volunteers for their service to the university.

“Susan does not wait to be approached,” says Faculty of Dentistry professor Angela Nowe (DDH ’94), who has known Keating-Bekkers for 15 years. “She identifies a need and then creates an opportunity to give back. Through her generosity, she has made a significant contribution both to the advancement of our university and the wider community.”

Keating-Bekkers’s contributions to the university began in 2012 with the Keating-Bekkers Award, a scholarship that provides financial assistance to Dental Hygiene students entering their second year of studies. The following year, she established a fund for the North End Community Health Clinic, which delivers dental services to disadvantaged community members in the municipality’s north end.

In 2014, she launched the Oral Health Care Initiatives for Nova Scotia Immigrants Fund and followed that with the creation of the Oral Health Rehabilitation Fund, which gives students experience in treating extreme cases of pain and tooth loss. But there is one other contribution that you should be aware of: Keating-Bekkers’s works as a volunteer faculty instructor, which frees up more funds for education and treatment.

“My goal is to provide dental care to as many people as possible,” Keating-Bekkers explains. “It’s an important part of our overall health, but there isn’t much support out there for people to access oral health if they don’t have money.

“Dalhousie has outreach programs and students that provide services to the community,” she continues. “It was crystal clear that if I supported the Faculty of Dentistry, it would have a significant impact for everyone. Students receive great learning experiences, people gain access to quality oral care and it improves the university’s dental program immensely. It’s a win-win-win.”

Dr. Tom Boran (DDS’78), the former dean of the faculty, is delighted to see Keating-Bekkers’s service to Dalhousie recognized with the A. Gordon Archibald award. “I don’t know of anyone who is more compassionate, caring and devoted to ensuring our students receive the best oral health education grounded in giving back to our much-needed communities and always ensuring respect for the peoples we service.’

“I’m always thinking about helping others,” Keating-Bekkers explains. “My parents constantly encouraged me to think about how I can serve my community, so it’s pretty much in my blood. I think it’s in all of us. We can all give something. It doesn’t have to be money. It could be anything. I just know that when I give, my heart gets bigger and there is nothing that can compare with that feeling.”

Keating-Bekkers says it was a surprise and honour to receive the A. Gordon Archibald Award, and to read the letters of support that friends and colleagues submitted. “I was humbled. I’ve never done this for attention or limelight. But I can use opportunities like this to share my story and encourage others to do good things. If just one person is inspired to donate their time or money to the Faculty of Dentistry or anything that interests them, that would be great.”

For now, Keating-Bekkers is content to continue volunteering with the Faculty of Dentistry and adding to the funds she’s created to ensure they benefit professors, students and patients for years to come. But if an opportunity presents itself to do more, Keating-Bekkers is ready to step up.

“There is always a need for more programs and treatment, and there are ways to go beyond the funds and programs we have now. Dalhousie gave me the knowledge and skills to do what I do, so whatever I can do to support the university in delivering education and oral care, I’ll do it, because that makes me happy.” (Photo: Danny Abriel)

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Christopher J. Coulter Award: Omar Gandhi (BEDS’03, MARFP’05)

The Christopher J. Coulter Award recognizes recent graduates for innovative accomplishments and notable contributions to society, the community or Dalhousie.

He may have earned some of the most impressive honours and awards any architect could hope to receive over the course of a successful career, but Omar Gandhi (BEDS’03, MARFP’05) has always made a point of prominently displaying rejection letters for projects and award submissions on his studio walls.

Gandhi concedes that may seem strange, but the rationale he offers for doing so is quite compelling. “One of the worst things you can do,” he explains, “is take any success you have for granted, because then you become so motivated by the fear of losing it, you’re afraid to take risks.”

If you are wondering how well this philosophy has worked for this Faculty of Architecture and Planning alumnus, consider the fact that Gandhi has managed to establish two highly successful architectural studios — one in Halifax and one in Toronto — before celebrating his 40th birthday. Publications such as The Globe and Mail, Canadian Architect Magazine and Wallpaper* have singled out Gandhi and his work for praise and profiles alike.

Even more impressive are those aforementioned accolades and awards bestowed upon him. The Architectural League of New York invited Gandhi to participate in its prestigious Emerging Voices lecture series. Monocle Magazine named him one of the 20 Most Influential Canadians. He has received the 2014 Canada Council for the Arts Professional Prix de Rome — the nation’s highest honour for young architects — and two Atlantic Woodworks! Awards for his residential projects. And he was included in World Architecture News’s 21 for 21 shortlist, which singles out architects who will define the profession in the 21st century.

Now, Gandhi is adding another accomplishment to his remarkable resume: the 2017 Christopher J. Coulter Award from the Dalhousie Alumni Association. The award recognizes the achievements of alumni age 40 years or under, but for Gandhi, it has a deeper meaning.

“I’m originally from Ontario, so I didn’t grow up here in Halifax,” Gandhi says. “But it is home for me now, and it feels really nice when your family — the university you attended and the city you live in — tell you that they’re proud of you.”

“I can’t think of anyone more worthy of this award than Omar,” says Eric Stotts, a Halifax-based architect and sessional instructor at Dalhousie who has known Gandhi for nearly ten years.

“The body of work that Omar has produced in such a short time is truly impressive. Right from the start, he wanted to do good things for good people, and he’s remained uncompromising in that respect. His drive, vision, and commitment to quality are truly rare and have inspired the rest of us to continually produce better work.”

The determination to produce quality work is reflected in Gandhi’s unique designs, which blend seamlessly with the landscapes of Nova Scotia. They include Moore Studio in Hubbards, where Gandhi incorporated plywood and reclaimed materials, and the rock-like exterior of Float house in Purcell’s Cove, which seems as if it were shaped by geological processes thousands of years ago. Such designs reflect Gandhi’s deep appreciation of place and material, one that first took shape during his studies at Dalhousie University.

“There aren’t many schools of architecture where you have an opportunity to go out and build things with your hands,” Gandhi says. “Dalhousie gave me those opportunities, all while emphasizing the importance of doing work that is regionally inspired and feels very much of a place. It’s a beautiful philosophy that is closely tied to Atlantic Canadian ideals of modesty and thoughtfulness, and it’s very easy to fall in love with those ideals.”

These are the ideals Gandhi shares in lectures all over the world—taking every opportunity to sing the praises of his alma mater—and with Dalhousie students as a sessional instructor. For him, instruction is more than an opportunity to stay connected with an institution that shaped his life and his career. It is a chance to interact with up-and-coming architects, which he says is essential to his continued growth.

“You gain a lot of insight, energy and a certain outlook on the work we do from students that you don’t get in the professional world. There’s something very refreshing about being around people who are in the position you were in, so I’d like to be more involved with the Faculty of Architecture and Planning in the future.”

The future is something that is always on Gandhi’s mind, whether it is more involvement with Dalhousie, more community commitments, such as the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), Big Brothers Big Sisters of Halifax, and Laing House, or the next project. He continues to work in residential and commercial, but would like to focus more on public space designs.

 “I dream of being able to produce a beautiful public space that makes people from all backgrounds and demographics feel happy and welcome. That would be my absolute all-time goal: to create something that touches everybody.”

Given his talents, relatively young age and passion for risk-taking, there is every reason to believe Gandhi will make that happen sooner than later. (Photo: Danny Abriel)

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Volunteerism Award: Loran Morrison (BSc’11, BSc’14)

The Volunteerism Award recognizes alumni for outstanding volunteer contributions to the community.

Most people cannot wait for the weekend to get here, but Loran Morrison (BSc’11, BSc’14) always looks forward to Wednesday afternoons.

Each week throughout the school year, you can find this third-year Dalhousie Medical School student at the Halifax North Memorial Public Library welcoming students and tutors alike to SHINE Academics, a volunteer-run free tutoring program that Morrison co-founded in 2013. Focused on science and math, the program has had a significant impact on everyone who has participated in it, from the students who are succeeding in school, the volunteers who make it happen, and Morrison herself.

“When you volunteer in your community, you’re doing something that adds energy, excitement and meaning to your life,” Morrison explains. “That’s what SHINE has done for me. To see students who were certain they couldn’t do math now entering their second year of university is just incredible.”

Most people who know Morrison would likely describe her as incredible, particularly her ability to give back to the community despite the demands of her studies, work and three dogs. In addition to running SHINE, Morrison played a key role in launching Sistema NS, a music tutoring program for youth, and she spent three months in Mae Sot, Thailand, providing education and health-care services to Burmese refugees. That devotion has long inspired friends and family to make a difference in their own way, and it is now being recognized with the 2017 Dalhousie Alumni Association Volunteerism Award.

SHINE co-founder Chloe Zinck (BSc’16) says such recognition is well-deserved. “Loran is a revolutionary thinker, a visionary leader, and nothing short of an inspiration to everyone who has the pleasure of meeting her. “She carries this passion with her in everything she does and I have no doubt that she will continue to change the world.”

Morrison and SHINE have certainly helped to change the lives of students who have participated in the program, with many going on to post-secondary education in a variety of fields that once seemed beyond reach. But Josh Creighton, who graduated from the program in 2015, says the impact of SHINE goes far beyond improving grades.

“SHINE acts as a platform for people to become leaders in our community,” says Creighton, who is studying at Dalhousie. “I would never have guessed how much Loran and SHINE would change my outlook on education, or life, and I hope she realizes how much we, the community, appreciate her for all she’s done.”

Originally from Truro, Morrison says the inspiration for SHINE came to her after she began studying physics at Dalhousie University in 2006. Looking for a sense of connection in her newly adopted community, she saw a poster at the Halifax North Memorial Public Library promoting a literacy tutoring program and asked staff if there was an opportunity to help students struggling with science and math.

“I was introduced to a student who was pregnant and trying to get through grade 11 before her baby was due,” Morrison recalls. “The next year, she had a cousin who needed help. Eventually, I went from having one student to ten a week and tutoring each for an hour. I realized I needed help, and that’s how SHINE was born.”

The program has grown significantly and quickly from its humble beginnings, thanks mainly to word of mouth. This fall, there are more than 70 students participating, and Morrison says it would not be possible to help them achieve their dreams without the support of volunteers. She is also grateful to Gordon Stirrett Wealth Management, which provides funding for equipment and snacks, and to her Dalhousie School of Medicine colleagues who have served as tutors and raised money for SHINE through the annual Euphoria talent show.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to be there for someone, but it is also wonderful to know there are people who are there for you,” Morrison says. “For me, that is the essence of community. It’s a team where everybody’s able to provide for everybody, and that’s what our volunteers and institutions like Dalhousie have done for me, because I couldn’t do what I do without them.”

For that reason, Morrison says receiving a Dalhousie Alumni Association Award is an honour. “It’s amazing to feel such love and appreciation from your colleagues and to know that they think the work you’re doing is great. It’s not the reason I volunteer, but to be recognized by the Dalhousie community is an incredibly humbling moment in my life.”

Morrison is not quite sure what the future holds for SHINE, except to say that she will remain involved even as she progresses toward a career in medicine. “SHINE has always evolved in an organic way,” Morrison says. “I don’t know what direction it will move in, I only know it will continue to grow and I am absolutely going along for the ride. It is the light of my life.” (Photo: Nick Pearce)


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