Senator Donald Oliver
Nova Scotia's Senator
|Black History and Culture|
“For more than 400 years, Blacks have been an integral part of the warp and weave of Canadian society and Canada’s economy. For example, as an interpreter between the French and the Mik’Maq people in the early 1600s, Mathieu de Costa undoubtedly played a role in developing the fur-trade industry along the Atlantic seacoast. But, de Costa was a free man. Those who came after him, enslaved and brutally exploited during the largest shift of population that the world has ever seen, played no less an important role in shaping our country.”
From Senator Oliver’s paper delivered to the “Multiple Lenses: Voices from the Diaspora located in Canada” Conference, Halifax, October 28, 2006.
Few Canadians know that slavery thrived in the territory that is now Canada for almost 200 years. Most Canadians also remain woefully ignorant about our country’s shameful record of intolerance and the hard won victories of Blacks for equality. That’s chiefly because Canadian history books don’t record much about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Blacks throughout Canada’s history. There’s the odd sentence or footnote in school textbooks, but nothing of real substance. And the stories of Black Canadians are not portrayed on television or in film, with a few very notable exceptions.
That’s why I have long promoted Black culture and history. I support the Chair on Canadian Black Studies at Dalhousie University, served on the Advisory Board for the Indigenous Black and Mik’Maq Program at Dalhousie Law School, and act as the Patron on the National Council of Black Educators of Canada. In addition, I make it a point to talk to young people at schools, especially during Black History Month in February, about the legacy of Black Canadians and their deep and enduring impact on our society.
Members of my family, past and present, have shaped this proud legacy as teachers, pastors, activists, musicians and artists. Descended from the Black slave refugees who came to Canada during the War of 1812, education has always been a cherished value in my family. We have strong ties to Wolfville and to Acadia University, where my grandfather and my father Clifford worked. And the sharing of music – opera, gospel and jazz – was and remains a joyful tradition in my family. Above all, however, I am proud of the important role that members of my family have played in advancing human rights and equality.
For example, while ministering to his people at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax, my grandfather, William White, devoted a great deal of his time to combating systemic racism. He fought continuously for the equality of Blacks. As a social activist, he continually broke down the barriers of racism and racial intolerance. It was he, for instance, who single-handedly made it possible for Blacks to sit down downstairs in movie theatres. Before his advocacy, Blacks were relegated to the balcony section, known then as “niggers’ heaven”.
My half brother, Reverend Dr. William Oliver, took over my grandfather’s responsibilities at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, where he served for 25 years. He was, on many levels and according to many historians, the greatest role model and black leader Nova Scotia produced in the 20th century. A first-class educator, statesman, minister and social thinker, his contributions to his church, community, and province remain unmatched.
Reverend Oliver was a tireless advocate of human rights in general and the rights of black people in particular. Barrier after barrier fell in the face of his insistent determination to translate his beliefs into reality. He was instrumental in establishing scholarships for Black students seeking higher education. In addition, he led the way in creating community-based learning programs, emphasizing the power of individuals to change their situation.
His wife, Pearleen Borden, shared his devotion to education and social advancement. She had sought to become a nurse, but the colour bar – which she later successfully challenged – was firmly across the door. She became Reverend Oliver’s life partner and co-worker in ministerial and community work, devoting her many talents to the women and girls while Reverend Oliver counselled the men and boys.
Several critical organizations in Nova Scotia’s history -- the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the Black United Front and the Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia -- owe their existence to my brother’s drive and commitment to his community, his province and his country.
I personally had the honour of working with him closely on these adult education and Black culture initiatives. Together, we also fought constantly to bring anti-discrimination legislation. We won that battle.
In addition, Rev. Dr. Oliver had a dream to build a Black Cultural Centre to showcase the achievements of Nova Scotia Blacks throughout the ages. He wanted young Blacks to know and appreciate their history and to be proud of the contributions that Blacks have made to the building of Canada. He hoped that the achievements of Black role models would inspire young Blacks.
After two years of study and research, I worked closely with the Attorney General's office to draft the "purpose" clauses that were in a Bill for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia. One of the momentous achievements of this new legislation was the culmination of Rev. Dr. Oliver’s dream. A new Centre for Black Culture opened its doors two years later. I was the founding president.
Like my grandfather and my-half brother I, too, have taken up the cause. I founded and was the first Chairman of the Board of the Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia. I was also a founding director of the Black United Front as well as the founding Chairman of the Canadian Association for Visible Minorities. These important advocacy groups have been instrumental in bringing about positive legislative and policy change on behalf of visible minorities.
As a member of the Senate of Canada, I continue to use my privileged political office to help make the cultural, business and political changes required to defeat racism and promote equality. In 2004, for example, I raised half a million dollars, secured the participation of major Canadian government departments and companies, and subsequently led a major research and education project, undertaken by the Conference Board of Canada. I have since delivered dozens of speeches and presentations to business, government and international groups on this and other research that definitively proves the business case for diversity.
If you would like to learn more about the history and contributions of Blacks in Canada, here’s a PDF of my paper which I delivered at the Multiple Lenses Conference, hosted by Dr. David Devine, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University.