By TOM GODFREY
The downtown community lost another pioneer and good man the other day with the passing of George Ernest Oliver Sr., a former sleeping car porter who left Nova Scotia for a better life in Toronto.
“Uncle George,” as he was affectionately called, was a feisty and courageous man who had a hard life growing up in Halifax. His family goes back at least five generations.
Friends and family members held a memorial for George in Toronto last weekend, close to where he lived.
He was 88. George is survived by his wife of 40 years, Lee, and their two sons.
In attendance were some young people who knew him from his days as a crossing guard, a job that he loved. The kids, now adults, were there to have a drink to celebrate the life of a fighter.
“George had to overcome a lot of obstacles in his day,” said long-time friend, Glen Gannon. “Back then there were only a few jobs available for Blacks in Halifax and those included working on the train or being a garbage man or street sweeper.”
Gannon, as other young men, worked as a porter for CN but couldn’t handle the job due to the blatant racism from White passengers.
“I hated being called ‘boy’ all the time and having to polish the shoes of White men,” he said in disgust. “The White people thought that they owned us then.”
Gannon got in trouble for leaving the “good” job that others wanted. He also did not want to work in Halifax as a garbage man, as his father did.
“Uncle George did not have it easy, neither did any of us Black people in Halifax,” he said. “By then I had enough (of) spit-shining peoples’ shoes on the train.”
And like many Black Nova Scotians, George and Gannon headed to Toronto, a city of opportunity where Black people could find well-paying jobs.
“We were all coming here for better jobs,” he said. “Halifax back then was not a good place for Black people.”
George, who I knew through his sons Ernest and Stacey, was one of the first people I saw standing up for another Black person as I was growing up. He stood up with dignity and did not seek attention.
He was always there, I recall, standing up for someone, who may have been wronged.
George worked for a while at a refinery in Hamilton and then became Superintendent of Jarvis Historical Homes for more than 10 years. The homes are among the oldest in Toronto.
In his older years, he was well-known to area children for being their crossing guard.
Percy Williams, a family friend, explained that Black people faced huge racial barriers in his hometown of East Preston in the 1940s and 1950s.
“Canada wasn’t that nice to us back then,” Williams told me. “It’s not like now. Back then the White people controlled everything.”
Williams recalls that the best job his father could ever get was being a city street sweeper.
“There weren’t too many jobs that were open for Blacks then,” he said. “The City of Halifax didn’t want Black people in the nice, upfront jobs.”
Uncle George took pride in his roots and had traced his linkage to five generations of Blacks, who had first settled in Halifax as free men from the U.S.
He was inspired by the Trelawney Maroons, some 600 of them who travelled from Jamaica and lived in Nova Scotia in 1796 and were later sent to Sierra Leone.
George loved Canada and was proud of our flag, even though he knew first-hand that Blacks were not playing on the same level field, as compared to Whites.
George often told me where he believed Blacks stood in the social pecking order of Canada. He was for many years penning his autobiography, which would have told a great story about his overcoming the degrading spit-shining of shoes and then moving on.