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

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

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.

“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.

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