One hundred thirty-one years after his death, Robert Sutherland has returned to Queen’s.
On Feb. 23, the Board of Trustees unanimously voted in favour of a student-initiated motion to rename the Policy Studiesbuilding Robert Sutherland Hall to honour the legacy of Queen’s first major benefactor.
Sutherland, the first black person to graduate from a British-North American university and be called to the bar of Upper Canada, graduated from Queen’s in 1852. Upon his death in 1878, he left his entire estate to Queen’s—a $12,000 bequest that at the time was equal to the University’s annual operating budget.
Principal Tom Williams said he made his recommendation to the Board of Trustees earlier than expected so that the announcement could be made before the end of February.
“I knew that February was Black History Month and thought it would be appropriate if we could do it in time to announce it during Black History Month,” he said.
Bill Young, chair of the Board of Trustees, said naming a building after an individual is a big consideration because the University doesn’t have many buildings or fields left to name people after.
“We have to be quite thoughtful and careful in the decision making. The type of questions that would be asked would be ‘Are there alternatives for this building? Who is on the shortlist that could be considered?’” he said. “It was those types of considerations in addition to which the Principal was asked to take the Robert Sutherland naming opportunity forward and so some additional work in the community, testing support from people in the Policy Studies building.”
Rector Leora Jackson and Undergraduate Student Trustee Michael Ceci spearheaded the motion with the help of AMS President Talia Radcliffe and SGPS President Jeff Welsh.
Ceci said many people were concerned about the loss of the Robert Sutherland Room in the JDUC, which is scheduled to be torn down to make room for the Queen’s Centre.
“One day I was looking at a campus map and the only two buildings that hadn’t been named were the Biosciences building and the Policy Studies building,” he said. “Given Sutherland’s occupation and what he had studied, that was a perfect fit with the Policy Studies building.” Jackson said she and Ceci began working with former principal Karen Hitchcock in early 2008 to make their idea a reality. The initiative hit a dead end when Hitchcock resigned suddenly in April 2008, but Jackson said she was determined to keep the idea alive.
“Over the course of the summer, I worked with [former vice-principal (advancement)] David Mitchell on putting together a proposal and talking about all the different possibilities for a naming,” she said. “We realized and felt that naming a building like the Policy Studies building, which has pretty important ties to Canada and to the development of the country and also to Queen’s, would be a suitable naming.”
With the help of the office of advancement, Jackson started researching whether or not renaming the Policy Studies building would be feasible.
“We looked into the University’s naming policy, we looked into whether Policy Studies was a building that had the potential to be named some other way, we looked into whether occupants of the building would be okay with a name change,” she said. “We did all of that research and as we did that we kept informing more and more people about the work we were doing.” Ceci said the importance of Sutherland’s donation needs to be put in perspective.
“He really came in at a time when the University, similar to today, was suffering a true financial hardship and bequeathed his entire estate to us,” he said. “Without him, there would be no Mackintosh-Corry, no John Deutsch and all these greats. He was fundamentally important to the long-term survival of this institution. We have to recognize that we’re only here today because of his gift.” Ceci said during his research he consulted with Greg Frankson, the first black AMS president and the chair of the Robert Sutherland Task Force from 1996 to 1998.
Frankson, ConEd ’97, said although the announcement comes just one month after his Jan. 26 editorial in the Journal called for renaming of the Policy Studies building to honour Sutherland, the renaming is more than a century past due.
“I appreciate the efforts of the current student leaders who put together the proposal that went forward to the Board, but Robert Sutherland made his bequest 131 years ago, so it can hardly be framed as a flawless victory when the naming opportunity happened in 2009,” he said. “Having said that, I don’t want to be entirely negative. By finally making a good decision on this issue that the University has now been presented with a tremendous opportunity to follow up the symbolism of the naming of Robert Sutherland Hall with some concrete actions in terms of admissions, curriculum, learning environment and so on.
“Development Studies was one small step taken in that direction. There’s been talk for a long time of an African studies program,” he said. “Just different initiatives curriculum-wise and the continuing effort through admissions to go into communities and high schools in areas of the province and the country with students of diverse backgrounds that historically was a weakness in Queen’s outreach strategy and to continue include alumni of colour in their outreach efforts in the various communities.”
Frankson said the renaming of the Policy Studies building to Robert Sutherland Hall is a step forward for Queen’s to build a better foundation to address issues of racism and diversity on campus.
“I think the most important thing that Queen’s can do as of this point is to work with its current students, faculty and staff and its alumni who care about these issues to come up with better ways of addressing concerns that have been raised in the community about how we treated black community members, Jewish community members and Muslim community members who have been the target of discriminatory behaviours and actions,” he said.
“It’s only through that engagement that takes us beyond symbolism to action that’s going to cause the changes that need to be happening for Queen’s to achieve its dated goal of providing Canada with the global citizens and leaders of tomorrow.”
After Sutherland’s death, principal George Grant ordered a large granite tombstone be placed on Sutherland’s grave in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery to mark his connection to Queen’s. Sutherland’s epitaph, “May his devotion towards his alma mater not pass into oblivion,” is inscribed on his tombstone in Latin.
In 1997, the Robert Sutherland Task Force established a JDUC-sponsored visitorship, a debating excellence award, an annual prize award by the AMS to a graduating student of colour and a room naming in Sutherland’s honour, but Frankson said he felt more needed to be done to remember Sutherland.
“His tombstone implores us not to permit his accomplishments and life to pass into oblivion, and I’m simply paying honour to that instruction,” Frankson said. “I think it is in keeping with the traditions and the veteran angels in Queen’s history for us to pursue that goal in this way.”
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