Community champion: Dalhousie University welcomes Rustum Southwell as its ninth chancellor

Founding Black Business Initiative CEO to be installed as chancellor at fall convocation

- June 28, 2023

Incoming Dalhousie Chancellor Rustum Southwell. (Provided photos, except honorary degree photo by Danny Abriel).
Incoming Dalhousie Chancellor Rustum Southwell. (Provided photos, except honorary degree photo by Danny Abriel).

When Rustum Southwell was invited to serve as Dalhousie’s next chancellor, he first had to take in the surprise of the moment.

“It was a total shock,” he recalls. “To be honest, I didn’t think I’d been noticed in the way that you get to a position of this level [of chancellor]. You do the work I do without expecting people to always see what’s happening. So I was very surprised — and very honoured.”

He then thought back to his first encounters with Dalhousie in the early 1970s. He was an international student from the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, studying Psychology for two years on campus. He didn’t end up finishing that degree: his path took a turn into the business world and, in time, towards leading the Black Business Initiative — one of Canada’s most transformative and renowned business development organizations.

But he never lost sight of the role education had to play in building stronger communities, including for the African Nova Scotian and African diaspora communities that have been at the foundation of his life’s work. Over the years he’s helped create scholarship programs in Dal’s Faculty of Management, advised and fundraised for the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, and served on the board of the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC).

His advocacy has also been recognized with honorary diplomas and degrees from NSCC, Saint Mary’s University and, in 2018, from Dalhousie.

Now Southwell finds himself taking on the mantle of Dal’s top ceremonial role — the first person of African descent to do so.

“Rustum in 1972, 1973 was this precocious young man, and now he’s an elder, as some would refer to it,” says Southwell, reflecting on his own journey. “Now is the chance for me to share some of my own wisdom, if you want to call it that, reflecting on community and speaking to the youth who are coming up, the next generation we’re mentoring.”

A university ambassador

The chancellor’s role within the university is both ceremonial and ambassadorial. Their most visible contribution is at spring and fall convocation, where they oversee the ceremonies and welcome graduates into the next chapter of their lives. They also serve as a member of the university Board of Governors and are expected to advocate for the university across the province, region and country.

Southwell’s appointment was approved by the Board of Governors at its June meeting on Tuesday (June 27), on recommendation of its Governance and Human Resources Committee. (He will be formally installed in the role during fall convocation this November.) Board Chair Cheryl Fraser says the chancellorship is an ideal role for someone of Southwell’s impressive character.

“Rustum has spent his life and career helping lift people up so they can grow, thrive and succeed,” says Fraser. “We are proud to welcome his generous spirit and inspiring leadership to the Chancellor’s role.”

Acting President and Vice-Chancellor Frank Harvey considers Southwell “a long-time advocate for the transformative power of education and a great friend and supporter of Dalhousie. He knows what it means to help build a supportive community that empowers possibility, and that allows everyone the opportunity to participate to their full potential. Dalhousie is honoured to have him as our next Chancellor.”

Inspiring leadership and opportunity

Of his many achievements — which include the Order of Nova Scotia and induction into the Nova Scotia Business Hall of Fame — Southwell is best known for his work with the Black Business Initiative (BBI). Founded in 1996 with support from both the federal and provincial government, it’s the longest serving Black business development initiative in Canada.

At the time of BBI’s creation, Southwell was executive director of the African Canadian Business Development Centre, having made his mark as one of the first Black franchisees in Nova Scotia’s food industry. Selected to become BBI’s first CEO, Southwell’s leadership saw the organization create over 1,500 jobs, provide business training support for over 1,000 aspiring entrepreneurs, and helped create and expand hundreds of Black-owned and operated businesses in Nova Scotia and, now, across Atlantic Canada.

Alongside his two stints as BBI CEO (he retired from his second tenure earlier this year), he’s been a familiar face within some of the province’s most vital community organizations. In addition to NSCC, he’s been a board member of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, the Waterfront Development Corporation (now Develop Nova Scotia) and the Stanfield International Airport Authority. He’s served as interim president and CEO of United Way of Halifax. And he was the first chair of Hope Blooms Youth Ventures, the renowned non-profit social enterprise.

“At this stage of my life, it’s really about reflecting how you can impact the rest of your community,” he says. “The legacy of the Black Business Initiative and what it is done for Black entrepreneurship right across the country is a role model, an example of what can be achieved. But then I see Dr. Leah Jones at Dal’s medical school [the Faculty of Medicine’s first director of Black health), or the youth who have come through the Business is Jammin’ program — it’s all a testament to how many ways you can move the needle.”

Tides of fortune

Dalhousie has been part of moving that needle; Southwell mentions the legacy of programs like the Transition Year Program and the Schulich School of Law’s Indigenous Black & Mi’kmaq initiative as ways the university has made significant inroads to supporting Black and Indigenous learners and communities. He acknowledges there is much more to be done and hopes that, as chancellor, he can be a face and voice for this work and help expand Dal’s leadership as this UN Decade for People of African Descent continues.

He references a favourite Shakespeare quote of his, from Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”

“I think there’s so much happening now that we should take advantage of,” he says. “Dalhousie has an important mandate in education and community, and I am eager to play a part in moving that work forward.”


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