By RON FANFAIR
Jamaican-born Robert Sutherland – the first Black graduate at a Canadian university and the first Black to pursue law studies in North America – has been honoured by Queen’s University whose board of trustees last week unanimously approved a student-initiated motion to name the university’s Policy Studies Building after him.
Sutherland entered Queen’s in 1849, won 14 academic prizes and graduated in 1852 with honours in Classics and Math. After qualifying to practice Law, he settled in Walkerton, Ontario. He died in 1878 at age 48 and left his entire estate – $12,000 – to Queen’s which helped to place the university on a solid financial footing in the wake of a banking crisis that threatened its existence at the time.
“The Board fully supports the students’ ongoing commitment to ensuring significant recognition of Robert Sutherland on campus,” said Board chair, William Young. “He played an important role in the history of the university, Ontario, Canada and North America. Queen’s is proud to have welcomed and supported him during his student years.”
Lawyer Aston Hall who, like Sutherland, was born in Jamaica, said he’s delighted that Queen’s has bestowed the esteemed recognition on the trailblazer.
“Here is a man who so long ago traveled the road that we are passing through now,” said Hall who practices in the field of criminal law. “I am really impressed with what he accomplished and his generosity. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s a proud moment to be a Jamaican.”
Canadian Association of Black Lawyers president, Frank Walwyn, graduated from Queen’s University Faculty of Law.
“Robert Sutherland has always been an inspiration to me, not so much because of his significant financial contribution to the school, but because his story is one of academic excellence and achievement in a university known for uncompromising academic standards,” Walwyn said. “This recognition is more meaningful in that it was announced during Black History Month.”
A students-created task force in the mid-1990s paved the way for a room in the Student Centre to be named. A memorial plaque, academic prizes and several other student assistance funds also recognize Sutherland’s contribution to the university.
A student proposal to name the building after Sutherland was discussed at a December board meeting when the board unanimously acknowledged “the importance of the support and contribution by Sutherland to Queen’s”, and charged Principal Tom Williams with reporting back with recommendations.
“This particular form of recognition and this particular building are a perfect fit for a distinguished individual who plays a significant role in the university’s history,” said Williams. “The initiative and enthusiasm of the students involved is a credit to the university and is what Queen’s is all about.”
Student rector, Leora Jackson, said they were looking for something that would appropriately reflect Sutherland’s life and achievements as well as the impact his financial gift had on the university.
“Dedicating the Policy Studies Building is ideal because it marks a permanent recognition of Queen’s diverse roots and the multiple individuals and communities that have shaped and that continue to shape the university and Canada,” she added.
Queen’s alumnus, Kareena Elliston, said the recognition is long overdue.
“They named a room (Robert Sutherland Memorial Room on the second floor of the John Deutsch University Centre) in his honour in 1997,” recalled Elliston who graduated in 2006 with a Bachelor of Honours Arts in French and Spanish and an International Studies Certificate. “The only problem was that the building was dilapidated and we wanted him to be recognized in a much more decent manner. (The room was renovated and re-dedicated in November 2006).
“Most people seem to forget that had it not being for his generosity, there might be no Queen’s today. Queen’s and all its graduates are deeply indebted to him.”
Ottawa-based community activist and media personality, Sarah Onyango, lobbied and advocated on campus and in the broader community for the past 13 years for greater recognition for Sutherland.
“Today is a very satisfying day for Queen’s has finally taken a positive step forward to address some of the issues that have come up in recent years regarding the treatment of visible minorities on campus,” said the Kenyan-born Onyango. “This naming sends a powerful message that the university is serious about making Queen’s a safe, productive and attractive environment for any person, no matter their background, who wishes to study within their hallowed halls.”
An outstanding debater, Sutherland – who entered Queen’s eight years before it was established – served as treasurer of the Dialectic Society which is now the Alma Mater Society.
He launched his legal career in Kitchener and practiced law for close to 20 years in Walkerton, serving briefly as the town’s Reeve. His donation – drawn up in his will three weeks before he succumbed to pneumonia – came at a time when Queen’s had lost most of its endowment in a bank collapse a few years earlier.
His gift was used to start a fundraising campaign that helped prevent Queen’s from being annexed by the University of Toronto. To show its appreciation, then university principal, George Munro Grant, ordered that a large granite tombstone be placed on his grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery to mark his connection to the university.
An unveiling ceremony for the Robert Sutherland Building will take place later this year.