The Afro News: In preparation for today, I had a chance to review some of the published articles on you and was amazed by all your accomplishments and now ask can you describe your life experience as a Nova Scotian, Canadian citizen and a Senator?
Honourable Senator Oliver: Yes I can. I was born in a very small town in Nova Scotia and we were basically the only Black family in this university town and my father was a janitor and from the earliest days we learned that because of the colour of our skin being black that we were different and we were treated differently and the expectations were higher than for the ordinary while people with the same status and so from a very early stage, I learnt that in Canada, the colour of your skin made a difference. And there had been a number of people in my family before me, like my grandfather and my aunt and my half brother and others who said that the colour of your skin and your African heritage should not hold you back and make a life experience for you any different from your white counter-part. So they set about in many different ways to find ways to equalize all Canadians irrespective of the colour and the pigmentation of their skin or country of origin, particularly if they were from Africa, and so they broke down over many many generations and over many decades many of the barriers that prevented equality for African Canadians such as letting African Canadian sit anywhere in a movie theatre, such as letting African Canadian girls go to hospitals to train to become registered nurses, such as letting Black men and women go into a barber shop that was owned and operated by white people, such as letting Afro-Canadian families, such as mine go into restaurants in Halifax, Nova Scotia and be served, notwithstanding the colour of their skin. These barriers were broken down by members of my family and so I have a long-long history through my life experience and not only in Nova Scotia but through-out Canada of having worked to break down these suspended barriers. As a senator, I have attempted to carry on the same thing. I have done extensive work in what we call diversity, which is trying to make people see that a difference of straight or curly hair, of flat nose or another nose or the texture of your skin should not make a difference and we have to accept difference or diversity in order to make it in the world today in the 21st century, because diversity is a reality.
The Afro News: In your time as a politician, what changes have you seen in our society?
Honourable Senator Oliver: I became a senator in 1990, and since that time, there have been enormous changes in our Canadian society and Canadians have been forced to recognize the fact that White people don’t own and run a country of 33 million people anymore. In the early days, apart from the Aboriginal who were here before, Canada was founded by people from France, from England, from Wales, from Scotland, from Ireland, and they were white and there were some United Empire loyalists who came to Canada from the United States and they were white. Through the Underground Railroad, Blacks came to Canada, and Blacks came as Maroon from Jamaica, some came from Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa but the black people were never included in the history books, they were never included in anything that was Canadian and so, as a senator, I said that I’m going to devote my time as a senator to try and equalize these opportunities so that people of African descent can be fitted into the fabric of society, just like a white person, so that they will be equal.
The Afro News: With respect to our diversified communities in Canada what is your overview of what needs to be done for the future development of minority communities?
Honourable Senator Oliver: I think that the first thing that we have to do is that we have to make education available to all Canadians as though they were equal. We cannot have ghettos where the schools, the teachers, the training and the opportunity are poor or less in one region than they are in another. It has to be universal. High quality education has to be universally applied – so education is the first pre-requisite. Secondly, I feel strongly that there has to be an opportunity to encourage entrepreneurship among our ethnic communities and to that end, I’ve been working with a group of African Canadians from across Canada; from Nova Scotia to British Columbia to set up an organization based upon the Black Business Initiative in Nova Scotia, whereby young creative entrepreneurial African Canadians can be given assistance through money, through advice, through managerial training, through writing of business plans, reading of financial statements, to go and start their business and be provided with assistance in making it viable, so they could hire their own and show that black people can also run highly successful business in this country.
The Afro News: Do you think that the Afric communities in Canada have made a positive difference to society; and do you believe that they have received the recognition historically needed?
Honourable Senator Oliver: Well, they have certainly made a positive difference to Canadian society in many many ways and all you have to do is look at any of the professions. Some of the leading surgeons are African in Canada. Some of the leading scientists/inventors and creators today and in the past have been African Canadians. Some of the leading professors, scientists, thinkers and writers are African Canadian, and so have they made a difference and any contribution? Of course they have! Now, is it known? Of course it is not! And even in the world of sports, Africans have played a major role; in our football teams, in our hockey teams and all of the teams that are a part of national significance in Canada. One of the things that February, Black History Month does is make all Canadians, particularly school children, aware of the fact that they should go to the internet, go to the book and start learning about these great Afro-Canadians who have made an incredible contribution to growing this country.
The Afro News: Senator Oliver, we have just learned from Roger Jones that the Chief of the Defence Staff has approved the awarding of the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service, posthumously, to his grandfather, Jeremiah Jones, in recognition of his outstanding service during World War I at Vimy Ridge. Jeremiah was a lifelong resident of Truro, N.S. and we understand that details of an awards presentation in Nova Scotia are forthcoming. This acknowledgment of the contribution of an African Canadian soldier has taken over 90 years. What do you think is the significance of this award to all African Canadians?
Honourable Senator Oliver: Well, 90 years is too long, but that is an indication of what racism, prejudice and discrimination have meant to our Afro-Canadian people since Canada was founded. However, I’m absolutely delighted that this Canadian Forces medal is going to be awarded posthumously to the Jones’ family, because it is long overdue, and I should say that William Hall who also was the first Black Canadian to receive the Victoria Cross has been finally recognized. He was buried in an unmarked grave, but he’s now being recognized in Canada, not only with special ceremonies and special clauses and special plays, but a Canadian stamp has now in February of this year, been announced in his honour, and so William Hall, Jeremiah Jones and many other Black Canadians who fought for Canada, because they believed in this country are being recognized for their valour, for their perseverance and for what they have done to make Canada the great country that it is today.
The Afro News: What wish do you have for the communities of Canada; what advice would you pass onto our youth and future leaders and how do you want to be remembered?
Honourable Senator Oliver: Well, three big questions. I feel that I would like to see the day, as Martin Luther King dreamed, that all of us would be judged not by the colour of our skin but by what is in our hearts and what is in our minds and what we can contribute to the country, and when that day arrives and is achieved, that would be happiness for me. What advice do I have? The advice I have for all Afro-Canadians is forget about drugs, forget about alcohol, forget about trying to make a quick buck and start first of all with education and stay in school, keep your nose clean, make good grades and don’t just stop at grade 11, grade 12 but ho on and get a post secondary education and then go on and get some post education beyond that. Become professionals; become engineers, doctors, lawyers and get the education so you can get the good job so you can afford to have your family, send your family to get an education, because education is the key to everything; certainly the key to my family’s success. And my vision of Canada is that diversity will reign, diversity is here now, and until Canadians begin to accept and acknowledge the enormous contributions that African Canadians have made, Canada will never be the great country that it can and should be, as a leader in the world.
The Afro News: Thank you for your time and service to our nation. The Afro News is honoured to have shared these moments with you as we celebrate Black History Month 2010!
In Unity we stand and continue to serve society.
Transcribed by Joy Walcott- Francis