The fight for equality: A conversation with Don Oliver, the 1st Black man appointed to Senate
Retired Nova Scotia senator Don Oliver reflects upon his childhood, career and his trailblazing work to create a more tolerant Canada.
In 2015, Don Oliver was given six months to live.
“It was the biggest shock I’ve ever received in my life,” said the 83-year-old Oliver.
But the retired senator from Nova Scotia didn’t accept the prognosis that came with his heart condition — cardiac amyloidosis — and sought experimental treatment
“It worked because I’m still here, and since I’m still here … I wanted to use my brain as long as I could so I decided to write a book,” he said.
Oliver’s memoir — A Matter of Equality: The Life’s Work of Senator Don Oliver — is now a reality.
It chronicles his childhood, growing up in the only black family in Wolfville, his time as a lawyer, businessman and advocate for the Black community in Nova Scotia, and the achievement of becoming the first Black man appointed to the Senate. It was there where his motion to make all of Canada’s Parliament officially recognize Black History Month passed in 2008, which he describes as “a great joy.”
Throughout his book, Oliver explores the racism that permeated his and his family’s experiences, and how he has repeatedly sought to fight racism and promote tolerance throughout his life. His investiture to the Order of Canada in 2020 noted him as “a trailblazer who broke down the barriers of systemic racism.”
26:10Don Oliver on a lifelong push for equality
6 years ago, Don Oliver was given 6 months to live. That prompted the first Black man appointed to Canada’s Senate to write down his life: one filled with fighting racism, as Don says, “by using my brain, and by changing the law.” 26:10
Oliver spoke to CBC Radio’s Atlantic Voice about his memoir and anti-racism work.
The excerpts from this interview have been condensed and edited.
When you went to law school in Halifax, you write about an incident in the book at a pool hall in Halifax. Can you tell us about what happened there, and what you took away from it?
Well, I went with a white guy, a Sir James Dunn scholar, as I was. And so we went into this pool hall, and we were going to have a little game. We took down our pool sticks, racked up the balls and hit the balls. And while I was hitting balls into the pockets, I noticed that he had gone. When he came back, he was all agitated. He was limping. I said, ‘Oh my God, what has happened? What has just happened to him?’ And he said, ‘Put your cue on the table immediately and follow me.’
And I followed him, as he limped out of the pool hall. And as we were getting to the door, there was a tall man, cigarette dangling from his mouth, who looked at me, really with a nasty look on his face and said, ‘You’re Black, you’re not allowed in here, so get out. You can’t stay here.’
And then he pointed his finger at my white friend from law school, Del, and said, ‘You can stay, but you have to go.’ And so Del had never experienced anything like that before. He’d never seen anti-Black systemic racism right in his face like that.’
And he was quite hurt by it…. And he said, ‘I didn’t want to have to tell you the names and the words the man said about you behind your back. And so I wanted to get out of there first.’ So that was the story — so that’s in your face Black racism in the early 1960s, I was in first year law, ’62.
But you didn’t let that incident alone. You took action about it. What happened?
Well, I went back to the law school, looked at some books. Then I phoned the Department of the Attorney General and said, ‘My human rights have been violated on grounds of race. You’ve got to do something about this.’
Later on, I had a call from one of the lawyers in the legislative branch, and he said, ‘We’re working on a piece of legislation on racism that may be of help. We’re going to send it to you. Please look it through. And based on your incident, feel free to edit it, mark it up, to make it stronger, to make sure that these incidents are covered.’ I did edit it and mark it up and send it back. A lot of my amendments were accepted. The bill became law, and it was known as the Fair Accommodation Practices Act. It meant that I, because of the colour of my skin, could not be kept out of a place to which the public was customarily invited.
And so that changed the law of Nova Scotia, and I was happy about that. And as I say, I didn’t have to use sticks or guns, but I did it by using my brain and by changing the law.
You made history in 1990 when you became the first Black man appointed to the Senate … when you arrived in Ottawa, what reception did you find for pushing toward diversity in that world of politics? Were you able to kind of get through that message?
You used the word politics. Politics is part of it, but even before politics, there’s the bureaucracy, or the administrative mechanism, that makes up Parliament, Parliament Hill and the government and all those things. And I want to tell you, it was very racist. And the Parliament is made up of the House of Commons and the Senate and the Crown, and the House of Commons administration was very racist. So also was the Senate. So one of the first things that I personally did was to call a meeting of the librarian of the Parliament of Canada. The clerk of the House of Commons and the clerk of the Senate and say, ‘Look, I would like you to give me some statistics and some data of the hires of Black people and visible minorities in your group over the last five years.’ Well, they had no statistics.
And I said, ‘Well, tell me, how many people have you hired of colour? And they said, Well, we don’t know. We don’t have a number.’ And in the Senate, there was a five-year period where there was not one person of colour hired in the administrative system at all. That is not as a floor sweeper, a janitor, nothing. And so I started making changes there, and did, in fact, make major changes in both the House of Commons and the Senate with future work.
Throughout your life, you’ve worked within existing systems of power, bureaucracy or the law to create change. Why go that route?
Well, because I didn’t want to be baying at the moon as they say. But I had to have something that you could get some teeth into, and something where you could actually see positive change and a difference being made. And something you could tabulate, something where you could get some data and statistics saying, this is change for the better. So that’s the main reason for going that route. I had to make sure that there was something to measure, because if you can’t measure something, it’s not going to happen or it probably hasn’t happened.
Do you see what you’ve been doing for decades as laying the groundwork for some of the current confrontations with systemic racism we’re seeing throughout our society?
I think so, yes.
And after the movement, Black Lives Matter, and after the death of George Floyd, the world saw this man murdered. Around the world, millions of people watched it live, and they threw up their hands and they said, ‘Enough’s enough, we can’t stand this. We’ve got to stand up and do something. This is wrong.’ This is not any way that a human being should be treated, just because of their colour. And that made a big difference.
So that, along with some of the other work that I had done on building the business case for diversity, I think helped make a change. Now what do I mean by building that business case for diversity? That means that, if you are a company and you have diverse employees who speak different languages, who dress differently, eat different food, wear different clothing and so on, but are highly educated, highly motivated and have a lot of managerial skill. If you have them working for you, your company is going to have more profits in the bottom line. And you’re going to be more innovative, you’re going to be more creative, you’re going to be a better company, you’re going to bring in more business, you’re going to sell more.
And so diversity works. And diversity simply means acceptance of difference. So the business case for diversity says if you accept difference, you’re going to succeed. So adopt it.
You’ve been standing up for what’s right for decades now. It doesn’t sound like you’re slowing down any time soon, where do you get your energy?
Well, I don’t know. I’m supposed to be dying and and and I guess I’m not ready, and I don’t think the Lord is ready to take me. And so I feel I must continue to give back and do as much as I can to try to make Canada a better place. Because what I really, really want is to see a more tolerant Canada, where the concept of equality is first and tolerance and acceptance are all part of the fabric of what it is to be a Canadian.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.