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JOHN DeMONT: Scott Brison becomes new chancellor of his old university

Kings-Hants MP Scott Brison. - Ian Fairclough /File
Scott Brison, Dalhousie University's new chancellor, in his student days there once owned 180 mini-fridges and drove through campus with stacks of frozen pizzas in his trunk. - Ian Fairclough

Back in his university days, the newly anointed chancellor of Dalhousie University was a busy young scholar.

How busy? Well, in those days, Scott Brison, now a lean 79 kilograms, looked for “economies of scale” when it came to eating.

Back then, the former federal cabinet minister-turned investment banker would scour the pizzeria menus for the largest, most calorie-laden pizza for the cheapest price.

Then he would buy several of them and stick them in the trunk of his beaten-up Volkswagen Jetta. There the ones at the bottom of the pile would sit, for days at a time, frozen in the Halifax cold.

Brison, who ate pizza for breakfast, lunch and supper in those days, had a system. When the time came for a new pie to be thawed out he would pull up to the student union building at Dal, where he was studying business, or some other place with an easily accessible microwave.

Then he would park, lift the pizza out of the trunk and dash into the public building where he would nuke the pie back to life.

“It worked well until the accident with the anti-freeze in the trunk,” Brison told me Tuesday, after Dalhousie announced that he would follow in the footsteps of Sir Graham Day, C.D. Howe, Reuben Cohen and, most recently, Anne McLellan, once deputy prime minister of Canada, who graduated from Hants North Rural High School, a mere 30 kilometres from Brison’s Hants West Rural High.

Brison arrived in Halifax from Cheverie, N.S., in 1985 — an 18-year-old with two suitcases, some sparse facial hair, a stillbeing- worked-out sexuality, and vague aspirations of going into politics and business.

“Dalhousie and Halifax allowed me to blossom and flourish as a person,” he said.

It didn’t take him long to settle in, first in residence at Howe Hall, later in an apartment at the corner of Coburg Road and Vernon Street, on the edge of the Dal campus.

Prefiguring the life that would follow, Brison put in full days in Halifax. His father, Clifford, who commuted every day from Cheverie to his stockbroker’s job in Halifax, urged him to enrol in the kind of courses that would ensure gainful employment upon graduation.

Brison followed his counsel, taking a full load of business and economics courses in his first three years before switching over to some liberal arts electives in his final year.

But he was plenty active in politics, eventually becoming the president of the Progressive Conservative Association of Nova Scotia — Brison was first elected as a conservative member of Parliament, before crossing the floor to join the Liberals — which had him organizing youth events for both prime minister Brian Mulroney and Nova Scotia premier John Buchanan.

He also had to pay his own way, which meant taking on part-time jobs, sometimes two at a time.

“I started my own co-op program,” he jokes.

At Dalhousie his entrepreneurial bent was obvious. He and some friends bought a house near campus, which they turned into student flats.

Early on, Brison and a couple of partners bought a bunch of mini-fridges for $140 apiece. They turned around and rented them out to students for the eight-month duration of the academic school term.

The first year they owned 180 fridges. When Brison, who eventually bought his partners out, closed down the business, University Rentals had 1,000 fridges, as well as microwaves and TV sets which were earning him rental income on 10 different post-secondary education campuses.

He wasn’t some dour workaholic.

Brison can speak with some authority of Halifax’s fabled Liquor Dome. In Halifax he witnessed his first Pride parade, in which the participants, seeking anonymity, wore paper bags over their heads with their eyes cut out. (He describes marching in Halifax’s 2017 parade, along with his husband and their daughters and Prime Minister Jutin Trudeau as “one of the most moving moments of his life.”) If he were doing it again Brison told me that he would focus more on his studies. With all the politics and business enterprises he missed a lot of classes. But his professors were accommodating.

He hasn’t looked at a transcript of his marks in a long time, yet recalls earning something around a B average at Dalhousie to which he has always remained connected even after graduation.

Brison, who went on to become the federal minister of public works and government services along with president of the Treasury Board, still sees old friends and classmates from Dal, some of whom have made their mark in business and other fields.

A few years back he helped champion the creation of the Irene MacDonald Sobey Endowed Chair in Curative Approaches to Alzheimer's Disease at Dalhousie.

Brison’s day job is as vice-chair, investment and corporate banking with BMO capital markets. In this largely ceremonial role at Dalhousie, he looks forward to doing what he can to help a school whose strengths, he thinks, mirror the needs of the times.

“What excites me is that Canada’s future is in innovation and that is right in Dalhousie’s wheelhouse,” said the man who once drove through its campus, stacks of frozen pizza in his trunk, ever alert for opportunity.

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