Excerpted from the Honourable Donald H. Oliver’s address at the 80th Anniversary Dinner of the Rotary Club of Amherst, Nova Scotia.
Three generations of my family, on both my father’s and my mother’s side, have worked to stem the tide of racism for all visible minorities in this country and, in particular, blacks in Nova Scotia.
One of the more pivotal events I remember as a young man involved the relocation of the citizens of Africville in the early 1960s. Located close to downtown Halifax and close to the harbour, blacks had lived in this community for more than 100 years. But the city wanted the land: it was prime real estate.
The Africville relocation was a study in pathos. No attempt was made to save the community as a community. No reasonable compensation was paid to the residents for their property. And as soon as deals for the acquisition of homes were signed, the houses were bulldozed.
Africville galvanized the Halifax black community into action. Its destruction created a unifying force – a force that encouraged blacks to stand up and affirm they would no longer be treated as inferior beings. For example, it inspired my brother the Reverend Dr. William P. Oliver, who took over as pastor of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax when my grandfather passed away.
Rev. Dr. Oliver had a dream to build a black cultural centre to showcase the achievements of Nova Scotia blacks throughout the ages. After two years of study and research, I worked closely with the Attorney General's office to draft the ‘purpose’ clauses that were in a Bill for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia.
One of the momentous achievements of this new legislation was the culmination of Rev. Dr. Oliver’s dream. A new Centre for Black Culture opened its doors two years later. I was the founding president.
Several other events distinguished these years as turning points in the history of blacks in Nova Scotia. To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the signing of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, a conference dealing with ‘The Black Man in Nova Scotia’ was scheduled for early December in 1968. Then, as the local newspapers reported, "four angry young men came to town" – all Black Panthers.
On November 30, a week before the Human Rights Conference, the fragmented black groups from Halifax, from the surrounding ghettos and from across Nova Scotia, held the first all black meeting. It sparked the creation of the Black United Front, an umbrella organization through which black Canadians could secure recognition of their rights and equality.
These events became defining moments for blacks in Nova Scotia. No longer could anyone sweep the ‘black problem’ under the collective rug of white society. Out of these pivotal events came a movement for better jobs, an end to segregation in education and an educational system more reflective of Nova Scotia society.
These events show that blacks and other visible minorities have come some distance in this country. The blatant disruption of entire black communities like Africville is not likely to happen in the 21st century. But our journey is far from over.
That's because very few Canadians know about, let alone appreciate, the contributions of black Canadians who have distinguished themselves in every field of human endeavour. They include Nova Scotians like:
In politics, in the arts, in military service and in business, Afro-Canadians have made inestimable contributions to our province and to our country – all during times characterized by pervasive racism. And these great Canadians not only endured, they succeeded.
Watch a profile on Senator Donald H. Oliver, produced by Cable Public Affairs Channel
Remember Africville (video)