A Canadian trailblazer and seventh-generation descendant of Black Loyalists has passed away.
Registered nurse, educator, entrepreneur and politician, Daurene Lewis – who in 1979 was the first Black woman in Canada elected to municipal office when she became a councillor in Annapolis Royal where she was born – died in hospital in Nova Scotia last Saturday. The youngest of three children fell ill a day earlier while attending a meeting.
She was 68.
Two years after being appointed deputy mayor, Lewis again made history in 1984 by becoming North America’s first female Black mayor. Four years later, she was the first Black woman to run in a provincial election. The Liberal Party candidate was unsuccessful in her bid to represent Annapolis West in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly.
City of Toronto poet laureate, Dr. George Elliott Clarke, who was born and raised in Nova Scotia, said Lewis was a symbol of struggle and success.
“She led a life of ‘firsts’, and we should remember that that is a position of honour, courage, fortitude and solitude too,” said Dr. Clarke, the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. “To be the first in anything means you have all the jealous people and all the doubters looking at you and expecting you to fall. At the same time, you need to hold your head high and sally forth, surpassing expectations and setting excellent examples. That’s what she did. We also should not forget that she came from a line of Black women achieving ‘firsts’. She was a descendant of Rose Fortune, a Black Loyalist woman who became the first Black woman police officer in North America.”
A graduate of Annapolis Royal Regional Academy and Dalhousie University, Lewis was a nursing instructor in Nova Scotia and Toronto.
“I am also reminded that she was born only a few years before Black women were allowed to study to become nurses in Nova Scotia and she was 10 years old when school segregation ended in that province,” said Clarke. “That she decided to become a registered nurse as a young woman shows that she was well aware of the struggles of her leaders to open nursing as a field of opportunity for Black women. In other words, one reason why she was an exemplary ‘first’ in many categories is because she understood and valued her history – our history.”
On Lewis’ return to the Maritime province, she launched a hand weaving and design studio, specializing in functional items woven in fine natural fibres. Her products were sold throughout North America and she was the recipient of awards from several organizations, including the Nova Scotia Designer Craft Council.
For four years up until 2001, Lewis was executive director of the Centre for Women in Business and Mount Saint Vincent University with responsibility for assisting women entrepreneurs start and develop their businesses.
Lewis brought her business expertise to the Halifax-based Black Business Initiative (BBI) which has helped to create over 300 Black businesses and hundreds of jobs in Nova Scotia since it was created 17 years ago. She was a board member.
“Daurene was very passionate, purposeful and strategic and she made an enormous contribution to the organization,” said former BBI chief executive officer, Rustum Southwell. “She never took on a project that she knew she would not be able to deliver on. She was quite the powerhouse and I had a lot of time for her.”
The Nova Scotia Community College Institute of Technology campus principal and former Africville Heritage Trust chair served on several boards and commissions over four decades. They include the Black Cultural Centre, the Neptune Theatre, the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Metro United Way and Canada Post Corporation. She was also a member of the board of governors of Dalhousie University, the Canadian Unity Council, Nova Scotia College of Art & Design and a member of the advisory committee of Dalhousie University Law School’s Indigenous Black & Mik’maq program.
The holder of a Master’s in Business Administration from Saint Mary’s University where she mentored at the institution’s Sobey School of Business, Lewis was honoured with a 2011 Harry Jerome Trailblazer Award.
She was conferred with an honorary degree from Mount Saint Vincent University two decades ago and in 2002, was recognized with a Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and appointed to the Order of Canada.
Lewis is profiled in “Who’s Who in Black Canada” and “Black Women Who Made a Difference in Nova Scotia,” which was released in 2007.
Dolly Williams, the project co-ordinator for the Nova Scotia publication, said she spoke with Lewis the day before she died about several issues, including the upcoming Black Educators Association’s annual dinner on February 8.
“I am just in shock,” said Williams. “She was a mentor and role model to many women and someone who certainly made her mark in this province and in Canada.”
Nova Scotia’s Premier Darrell Dexter said Lewis was loved and respected by all who were fortunate enough to meet her.
“She was a trailblazer if ever there was one, a true leader, a passionate volunteer and a great Nova Scotian whose advice I valued.”