“I believe I can represent Black Nova Scotians and visible minorities throughout the country…. I understand the need to combat racism whenever it appears and to provide equal opportunities to all regardless of the colour of their skin.”
Since making that commitment in his maiden speech in the Senate in 1991, Donald Oliver has used his position to support diversity and become a powerful advocate for visible minorities.
Eight years ago, he raised $500,000 to lead the first ever national study conducted in Canada that definitively proves the business case for diversity. The Conference Board of Canada employer’s guide provides concrete strategies and tools that can be used by leaders, human resource managers and line managers to create inclusive workplaces that respect, value and promote visible minority talent.
Oliver contends the ground breaking practical guide has been impactful.
“A number of senior public servants have told me that there is no report that’s more instrumental in making a movement for the four target groups (visible minorities, Aboriginals, people with disabilities and women),” said Oliver who retired from the Upper Chamber last Saturday. “Because that report suggested things that should be done by senior managers to be more inclusive, a lot of those recommendations were taken into consideration and changes were made.
“That more people from the four target groups have been hired and promoted in both the public and private sectors, I think, is a direct result of the recommendations and findings of that report.”
Since that study was initiated, Oliver has travelled to several countries around the world to talk about the urgency of fostering diverse and inclusive organizational cultures.
“From a visible minority and diversity point of view, all of the work that I did in diversity, I think, has made a difference because of the 2005 report that was read around the world,” Oliver said. “I was asked, for example, by countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland to fly to those places at their expense and give a series of lectures on that report so they could learn what they should be doing better in their public and private sectors to make diversity a fact of life. So that report and the work that I have done on diversity have had global ramifications. I would like to think that has been my biggest legacy.”
Called to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1965 after graduating with a law degree from Dalhousie University, Oliver served as director of the Nova Scotia Law Foundation and was active in several community organizations in his home province before his appointment as the first Black male to the Senate in September 1990.
In the last 23 years, just two other Blacks have been appointed to the Senate. Anti-racism activist Calvin Ruck served for two years before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75 in 2000. He died four years later. Ordained minister Don Meredith, the Conservative Party candidate in the March 2008 federal by-election in Toronto Centre, was elevated to the Senate in December 2010.
Anne Cools, Canada’s first Black senator appointed in January 1984, is the longest serving Senate member.
An Acadia University history graduate, Oliver feels more Blacks and visible minorities should be part of the 105-member Upper House.
“The Senate is supposed to represent the mosaic of Canada that consists of visible minorities,” he said. “Not only that but the constitution says that we, once summoned to the Senate, are there to represent minorities. So there should be some minorities there to represent their own people as well.”
Oliver said the Senate has evolved in the last two decades.
“There have been many, many changes in the way it operates,” the former Progressive Conservative party legal affairs director said. “It has become more transparent and accountable, it does more inclusive and better committee work and there has been a whole series of exceptional reports done by various committees that have really set the trend for public policy for the executive and it doesn’t matter what party was in power. The Senate’s work was very influential and that has been one of the main changes since I joined.”
The recipient of five honorary degrees from Canadian universities, Oliver singled out the work he did on Private Members Bills to amend sections of the criminal code pertaining to stalking and one that addressed spam and related online threats as the highlights of his tenure in the red chamber.
“From a public policy point of view, I saw a problem with the criminal code and the number of Canadians of all colours that were being stalked and the law was not able to protect them,” said Oliver. “So I drew up a Bill that passed in the House of Commons and became the law of the land.
“Spam, at one stage was costing Canadians more than $9-billion in lost productivity. I brought in two Private Members’ Bills to try and correct that problem. Portions of those bills ultimately became law so that’s two things that are part of my legislative career that I will always remember.”
Another high point of Oliver’s career was his meeting with United States president Barack Obama four years ago in Washington. Prime Minister Stephen Harper invited him on the trip.
“We went to the White House and had a meeting in the Oval office in preparation for the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh,” Oliver, the first Black to hold the post of deputy speaker, recalled. “When that meeting was over, I had a one-on-one with Obama. It was an incredibly exciting moment for me because Obama had been briefed by our PM about a lot of the work I have done in the Afro-Caribbean community for almost 50 years. The U.S president congratulated and praised me for that work and some of the good things that have come from that work and then we talked about our joint history.
“I explained that I was the first Black man in Canadian history to be summoned to the Senate even though, on both sides of my family, I am a descendant of slaves in America. I said I had a lot to be proud of. He was the first Black man to become president of the U.S, so we both had a lot in common to be proud of. We shook hands and took a photo. That was very moving for me.”
One of five children born to a Baptist minister father and concert pianist mother, religion and music are integral parts of Oliver’s life. He played the trumpet as a young man and owned a jazz band.
The multi-faceted Oliver enjoys cooking and making his own jams, relishes and pickles and he has a farm in Nova Scotia where he runs a Christmas tree business in the winter. He’s also president and director of several businesses in Nova Scotia
As a lawyer, teacher, entrepreneur, advocate and statesman, Oliver has served Canadians with honour, integrity and distinction. Now out of the Senate, he plans to work on projects in Africa.
“I have a number of initiatives that I am talking to people about for ways that I can help various African countries with a lot of development-type issues either in terms of governance, global health, mining or democratic processes of strengthening parliaments,” he said. “It’s one of the things I would like to do a lot of work in.”