Senator Donald Oliver
Nova Scotia's Senator
|In Celebration of Black History Month 2013|
Keynote address delivered at a Black History Month Celebration on Parliament Hill on Friday, February 15th, 2013, organized by the Senate and the National Capital Commission.
Good morning, Bon matin, Je suis ravi, et très fier d’être ici ce matin. Cette année sera la dernière fois que je serai sur la colline du Parlement à titre de sénateur pour célébrer le mois de l’histoire des Noirs. C’est donc la dernière chance que j’aie de souligner l’importance que j’attribue au mois de février.
En effet, février nous permet de se souvenir, de valoriser et de célébrer les nombreuses contributions des Canadiens et Canadiennes de descendance africaine à notre histoire collective. D’abord, je veux remercier Reina Bernier de m’avoir invité à participer à cet événement.
Je tiens aussi à féliciter le Sénat et la Commission de la capitale nationale d’avoir eu la brillante idée de collaborer ensemble pour souligner le mois de l’histoire des Noirs.
Croyez-le ou non, mais c’est la première fois, en vingt-trois ans, que j’ai l’occasion de participer à un événement sur la colline, tel que celui-ci. C’est donc un honneur de vous adresser la parole.
Le mois de l’histoire des Noirs a premièrement vu le jour en 1926. C’était une initiative du Dr. Carter Woodson, un historien et professeur américain.
Au Canada, la semaine de l’histoire des Noirs a officiellement été célébrée au début des années cinquante lorsque le « Canadian Negro Women’s Association » a réussi à convaincre le conseil de ville de Toronto de reconnaître la semaine.
En Ontario, la reconnaissance de Queen’s Park eut lieu en janvier 1993. Deux ans plus tard, ce fut au tour de la Chambre des communes.
Et en 2008, j’ai présenté un avis d’interpellation au Sénat pour qu’il reconnaisse, lui aussi, février comme étant le mois de l’histoire des Noirs. Le 4 mars 2008, le Sénat a unanimement voté en faveur de mon avis. Cela compléta et formalisa la position du Parlement canadien vis-à-vis le mois de février.
Despite all these efforts and increased awareness, too few Canadians appreciate the countless contributions of African-Canadians to our history. Fewer still understand our struggle and our blood and sacrifice over many centuries. Many Canadians are often surprised to learn that slavery once existed in Canada. And that racial segregation was a reality in our country just a few decades ago. And of course, that racism and discrimination are still prevalent in today’s 21st century Canada.
For example, when I was growing-up in Wolfville, Nova Scotia in the 1940’s and 50’s, racial discrimination was an every-day, explicit reality, in the province. Many restaurants in Nova Scotia would not serve Black people. Many white barbers would not cut our hair. For decades, Blacks in Nova Scotia attended segregated schools and were forced to worship in Black churches. African-Canadian women were not permitted to train as nurses. Until the late 1960’s, we were even denied the right of burial in some public cemeteries.
In the 1960’s, I was a Sir James Dunn Scholar at Dalhousie Law School. I remember once being asked to leave the premises of a local billiards hall while playing pool with a fellow white student from Western Canada. I was asked to leave because of my colour. Blacks were not allowed.
The relics of racism have left a lasting, negative impact on African-Canadians. For centuries, we have had to overcome adversity, stereotypes, and misconceptions to forge our own place in Canadian society.
And despite all of this, we are still proud to say we are Canadian. And I am particularly proud of my Black heritage and family descendants.
Indeed, my family – on both sides – have fought for generations to achieve Equality, fairness and justice for all. And I guess that’s one of the qualities I inherited from them. It’s part of my DNA.
Allow me to say a few words about my family. It will give you a greater understanding of where I’ve come from and how I’ve become a Human Rights activist. I am the descent of slaves.
Andrew White, born around 1827, was my maternal great, grandfather. He was a slave from Virginia.
With the advent of the American Civil War in the 1860’s, he secured freedom for himself and his family. He then pursued his trade as a carpenter and a Cartwright and became a shrewd businessman and landowner – an astounding feat for any Black man at that time. Records prove that he even purchased the very plantation on which he had been a slave. Hard to believe isn’t it?
Born in the US in 1874, my grandfather William White immigrated to Nova Scotia in the latter part of the 19th century. He was the second Black graduate of Acadia University in 1903. That same year, he was ordained a minister.
He later enlisted in the Canadian Army in World War I as a chaplain, becoming the only Black officer in the British Army. After the War, he was called to the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax – Nova Scotia’s largest Black church.
While ministering to his people, he devoted a great deal of his time to breaking-down barriers of racism. It was he, for instance, who at one time single-handedly made it possible for Blacks to sit downstairs in movie theatres in Halifax. Before that, Blacks were only allowed in the theatre balcony – or “niggers’ heaven”, as it was known then.
William’s daughter – my mother Helena – was the eldest of 13 children. She was an incredible person, thoughtful artist and extremely hardworking. She was a teacher and an outstanding classical pianist. Her younger sister was also a great musician.
Her name was Portia White. She was a world-renowned opera star who captivated audiences around the globe with her powerful contralto voice. She sold out concert-halls wherever she went and even performed for Queen Elizabeth II in 1962. Her popularity helped open previously closed doors for talented Blacks who followed.
My mother’s brother, my uncle Bill White was the first Black Canadian to be candidate in a federal election in 1949 – twenty years before Lincoln Alexander became Canada’s first Black MP. Bill was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada for his “contribution to better relations and understanding between people of different racial background.”
The Olivers were also very active in the community. My great, great grandparents were also slaves in Maryland. It’s a fascinating story.
The slave owner Mary Meeks Lyles was the daughter of an American military colonel. The Lyles were a wealthy, white family. In fact, George Washington was a frequent visitor at the Lyles family estate. During the War of 1812, Mary – now a widow in her mid-30s – lost sixteen of her valuable slaves to the British Forces.
Two of these Black slaves, Adeline Oliver and her daughter Laura ran away from Mary. Adeline was the wife of Moses Oliver, who was owned by William Lyles. The Oliver family were part of the 4,000 enslaved African Americans who seized the opportunity to escape slavery during the War. About 2,000 Black Refugees sailed to Nova Scotia between 1813 and 1816.
The Olivers and the other refugees faced extremely difficult circumstances when they arrived in Nova Scotia. Yet, they came together to create a sense of community based on their shared history.
Two generations later, my father Clifford Oliver was born in Nova Scotia in 1883. He left his home at age thirteen to earn money to help his father feed his family of 15 children. So, he only achieved a grade eight education. He was a janitor at Acadia University and well-respected in the community. He was a devout Baptist. He swept floors and cleaned washrooms to make a mere $25 a week to support his wife and five children, including my sister Nancy who travelled from Montreal to be with us this morning.
Like his siblings, he insisted that all his children obtain post-secondary education, something he was unable to achieve. When my father died at age 84 in 1966, there were seventeen university degrees in his extended family. Most of the degrees were with high honours in such fields as medicine, law, and education.
For example, my half brother, Reverend Dr. William Oliver earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1934 and a Bachelor of Divinity in 1936 from Acadia University. Soon after, he took over my grandfather White’s responsibilities as pastor at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, where he served from 1937 to 1962.
He was an inspirational leader and was instrumental in establishing scholarships for Black students seeking higher education. Together, we both became deeply involved in the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP). We fought constantly to bring anti-discrimination legislation to Nova Scotia.
My brother was also the driving-force behind the creation of the Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia in 1977. He was a remarkable person in every respect – a committed champion of education and a powerful advocate for Equality.
As you can see, I had a lot of role models, just within my family that I could look up to. They inspired me to defend Human Rights and promote Diversity and Tolerance.
I attribute a lot of my personal success to their commitment to making our world a better place – a place where each individual, regardless of race, could be treated as equal. And Black History Month is the perfect occasion to remind ourselves that we are all part of the same race… the human race.
Donc ce mois-ci, j’encourage tous les Canadiens et Canadiennes de prendre quelques instants pour en apprendre davantage au sujet des Noirs et de nos réalisations. Nous sommes venus de loin, d’une époque où l’esclavage et la ségrégation étaient choses courantes.
Mais, il y a encore beaucoup de travailler devant nous à accomplir pour faire en sorte que notre société soit réellement inclusive, tolérante et progressive. Le mois de l’histoire des Noirs est aussi une occasion en or pour nous de dénoncer le racisme qui touche toujours les Noirs et les autres minorités visibles. Ce même racisme qui continue d’entraver notre progrès. C’est à nous de trouver des solutions pour mettre un terme à la discrimination, et célébrer les nombreuses contributions des Noirs à notre société.
This year, in particular, we are paying special tribute to the achievements of Black Canadians in the area of law enforcement.
I encourage all Canadians to participate in events like today’s ceremony and celebrate Black History. You are guaranteed to “gain insight into the vital role that we have played in building Canada and shaping our shared national identity.”
Thank you very much. Merci.