Why the deputy speaker of the Senate wants to ‘just slip away’

Pleasant River, N.S. — The Globe and Mail

Donald Oliver, the first black man appointed to the Senate, will retire to his Nova Scotia farm. (Paul Darrow For The Globe and Mail)

Donald Oliver is no stranger to public humiliation. Growing up in Nova Scotia, he was punched, bullied, spat on and once had a waiter in Halifax announce that “you niggers can sit there as long as you want – we don’t serve people like you” after his family had been ignored for 20 minutes.

But more than half a century later, as he is about to turn 75 and has spent more than two decades in public office, he says he is still subject to derision, although for quite a different reason.

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“We all, since the summer, have been ridiculed,” he explains. “Many senators … have been humiliated by comments and questions made by the general public arising from this scandal.”

The uproar over Senate expenses has commanded headlines for weeks, and on Tuesday saw the Conservative majority, of which Mr. Oliver is a member, force an unprecedented vote to suspend three of its own members – Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau – without pay for as long as two years.

Appointed 23 years ago (only four of his colleagues have served longer), Mr. Oliver is now deputy speaker of the Red Chamber. But he is required to step down when he turns 75 on Nov. 16 and says the timing couldn’t be worse.

Although proud of his years in Ottawa, he admits that, listening to fellow senators squabble recently, he couldn’t help but feel “what a terrible way to have to leave an institution that I think so highly of.

“I’m sort of going out in a cloud of ignominy, which is not what all of the work I have done over the years should signify.”

So, he decided not be in his seat for his last Senate session this week. Instead of basking in the glory of the traditional fond farewell, he says, “I just want to sort of slip away” – hardly a fitting end to an illustrious career.

Born in 1938 on a small farm in the Annapolis Valley and descended from slaves in the South, Mr. Oliver grew up poor, the son and grandson of janitors at Acadia University in Wolfville.

Devout Baptists, the Olivers (he had four siblings and a half-brother) were the only black family in town, and paid a price. For example, eldest sister Eugenie graduated from high school with top marks but didn’t receive a gold medal.

Even so, Mr. Oliver says, school was the way out. “My father didn’t ever get an education, but he realized the importance of it.” And Clifford Oliver died “a happy man” in 1966 – his extended family boasted 17 degrees, including the one his son had earned at Dalhousie Law School.

His mother, Helena, he describes as a “perfectionist.” The eldest of 13 children, she was an accomplished pianist (her son plays the trumpet) forced by small-town life to earn extra money as a seamstress for wealthy white women rather than win acclaim and break down barriers like her sister, renowned contralto Portia White.

Her family was well-educated – her father, William White, served as an army chaplain in the First World War and for more than 17 years preached at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax – home of the largest black congregation in the province and where Helena met her future husband.

Born the son of freed slaves in Virginia, Rev. White had been encouraged by a Baptist missionary to travel north to study. The second black student ever accepted by Acadia (founded by Baptists in 1838), he took theology and graduated as a minister in 1903 but passed away two years before Mr. Oliver was born. (His widow certainly kept the faith – visiting grandchildren had to fall to their knees in prayer as soon as they arrived.)

The Whites were dedicated to public service, so Mr. Oliver grew up with many role models (one uncle was the first black Canadian to run for federal office and another was a well-known labour activist) and the belief that an individual can make a difference.

Early in his career, he owned a home on Vernon Street in downtown Halifax with several friends from law school, including future provincial legislator Art Donahoe, who says that is when Mr. Oliver honed his cooking skills.

Mr. Donohoe also recalls how involved his friend was in the black community’s fight for equal rights. In 1968, members of the U.S. Black Panther movement, including the charismatic Stokely Carmichael, visited the house, an experience Mr. Oliver now says “reawakened not only the black community … but the white community” as well.

It led, he says, to the creation of both the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia and an organization that helped to train young people to work in the community and become politically active. Until then, he argues, most Nova Scotians were in “denial” about the plight of their black neighbours.

Throughout his career as a civil litigator with a leading firm, Mr. Oliver also taught at Dalhousie law school, served as director of the Law Foundation of Nova Scotia and sat on the boards of charitable organizations.

And he tried to lift up the black community through his work with his half-brother, William Oliver, who in his position as church pastor advocated for the rights of the black community. Mr. Oliver helped establish educational initiatives including contributing $50,000 to a $250,000 fund so that Black Nova Scotians could attend Dalhousie University.

Many of his relatives lean to the left politically, but Mr. Oliver became a Conservative although, as a Nova Scotian, he belongs to the federal party’s progressive wing, which is farther to the right on fiscal matters than it is on social issues.

He was introduced to the party as an undergrad studying history at Acadia (where he recalls having a 92 average that earned him a scholarship to law school), when he caught the attention of Robert Stanfield, who was then provincial premier and would become a lifelong friend.

Rather than running for office, Mr. Oliver worked behind the scenes. After Mr. Stanfield made the jump to federal politics in 1967, he served as chair of legal services for five campaigns from 1972 to 1988.

After his mentor stepped down in 1976, he became a supporter of Brian Mulroney, whose first seat in Parliament was in Nova Scotia. In 1990, he made Mr. Oliver the first black man ever appointed to the Senate (four years earlier, Anne Cools had become the first black woman), and today jokes that he was far from the province’s only candidate for the post.

“The lineup begins in Yarmouth and there is an unbroken line to the tip of Cape Breton – I had to do some pruning,” the former prime minister says, but quickly adds: “Don Oliver has been a model senator.”

He has certainly been an active one, in the early 1990s chairing a committee that recommended no fewer than 22 amendments to the bill that heralded a modern telecommunications statute as well as working on world trade and investment issues.

As well, he never forgot being invited to lunch at the Halifax Club with Mr. Stanfield, who had left office and confided that he had one regret: not having done enough as premier to help both aboriginal and black Nova Scotians. He asked Mr. Oliver to continue with that work – a request that has not been taken lightly.

“I believe I can represent black Nova Scotians, and visible minorities throughout the country,” he declared in his maiden speech to the Senate.

“As a member of both communities, I understand the need to combat racism whenever it appears and to provide equal opportunities to all regardless of the colour of their skin.”

He later helped to raise $500,000 for the Conference Board of Canada to study barriers to the advancement of visible minorities in the public and private sectors.

This spring, while speaking at Dalhousie, he urged a new generation to take up the banner: “If we want to make the same level of contributions to the future that our fathers and mothers made … if we want black Canadians to become a powerful force for change in our country and in the world, now and in the future, it’s up to us – as a society – to make it happen.”

While in Ottawa, he also has tried to build bridges between senators and senior bureaucrats – something for which Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters recently thanked him in an email.

After he “just slips away” from the fractious Senate, Mr. Oliver will return to his own principal residence: a farm he has owned since 1975 on the Pleasant River in Queens County, half an hour west of Bridgewater.

The landscape is rustic – he grows Christmas trees – but not the refurbished 9,000-square-foot, two-storey, eight-bedroom, 135-year-old farmhouse that he shares with his wife, Linda. (Spring cleaning takes a crew and a couple of days.)

The kitchen was expanded (and is now jokingly called the West Wing) to accommodate the culinary passion nurtured on Vernon Street.

Knowledgeable about wine as well as how to grow top-quality herbs and vegetables, he is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and has a wall lined with books on food, including Men Can Cook Too!, which he wrote in 1981.

As for the Red Chamber, he says the accusatory crossfire of the past few weeks reminds him of another low point, one that came early in his tenure when Liberal senators rang cowbells, blew kazoos and launched a filibuster to delay a vote on Mr. Mulroney’s goods and services tax.

Even so, he looks ahead with optimism – “You cannot forget the wonderful decorum of the Senate, and it has to come back” – and refuses to worry.

Despite the growing skepticism of the public – and his own party’s threatening noises to reform or abolish it – “the Senate is going to be here in 50 years’ time,” he insists.

“It will be different, but Canada cannot do away with the Senate, because it just plays too important a role in our system of democracy. … We are a body of a sober second thought.”

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