Originally Posted: October 19, 2021
Don Oliver’s ‘A Matter of Equality’: The Epitome of ‘Ubuntu’
Senator Don Oliver has given us a fabulous gift by sharing his life story in his own words. As the first African Nova Scotian, and indeed the first African Canadian man to be appointed to the Senate of Canada, he is a notable Canadian. There is much to learn about the fight for equality and social justice through his lived experiences, growing up poor and Black in racially segregated and race-conscious Nova Scotia. Positioned for purpose throughout his life, Senator Oliver is an elder statesman, ambassador, community builder, mentor and strong advocate for human rights, whose life is a road map of triumph in the face of adversity.
Senator Oliver’s career and life’s work fully embody the concepts of “racial uplift” and human rights advocacy. His work has influenced, inspired, and changed the lives of countless people, either directly or indirectly. Oliver not only sought education and opportunity for himself but assumed the huge responsibility to fight for freedom and justice for others, clearly following the footsteps of his grandparents, great-grandparents and other family members. From the time he became aware of systemic racial oppression of fellow African Nova Scotians, he worked with others to fight against anti-Black racism, throughout his career. Oliver shares many valuable life lessons that can help others who are struggling to find a way out of oppressive conditions. Furthermore, we get a glimpse into his work as a senator, which gave him a national and international platform to lead strategies for systemic change.
This book will have relevance to multiple audiences. First, parliamentarians can learn from the ways in which the former senator approached his parliamentary responsibilities. His interdisciplinary, collaborative approaches to policy development are insightful. Secondly, this book can be viewed as a call to action for people in leadership positions, especially those with white privilege who have the power and ability to fulfill his vision of a racism-free society as a matter of equality. This is a call for you to use your power in a way that helps move the dial on public policy that will elevate and improve members of equity deserving groups and communities. Third, for students, advocates, allies and supporters of equity and social justice movements, the book offers critical hope that turns anger into action. There are many life lessons that can guide us to the next stage of work in the fight for equality. This is truly a passing of the torch.
Don Oliver offers a rare, poignant glimpse into his unique approach to fighting systemic anti-Black racism and oppression of all marginalized groups. His thoughtful strategies, by becoming a part of powerful systems, gave him opportunities to cultivate relationships with those in power to help in the fight for systemic change. His ability to ask questions, to garner support and to speak truth to power in each space he occupied is a valuable model for activism.
There is also an important lesson here for Black youth – preparation is essential – you must be ready when doors are opened. The value of post-secondary education is clearly articulated in his story. Through this retrospective review of Don Oliver’s life, we can see how he transformed challenges into opportunities to act, and how he invited others to be a part of the change journey — the true embodiment of change leadership.
Among the most compelling elements of this story are the strategies Oliver used to develop social policy. His work in securing funds to do research that led to the Business Case for Diversity was seminal and we continue to build on it today. Oliver used collaborative approaches to build policy, for example hosting “Dialogue Dinners” with deputy ministers and senators – breaking down silos and getting these key players talking to each other about issues that truly mattered to Canadians.
This book can be viewed as a call to action for people in leadership positions, especially those with white privilege who have the power and ability to fulfill his vision of a racism-free society as a matter of equality.
Don Oliver also offers an unprecedented look at who he is as a person, a husband, a father, a brother, and a friend. He values each of his relationships, is a loyal and dedicated human being with deep spiritual roots and values. He is humble, caring, supportive and community minded. I found it intriguing to learn about his younger self. He remained focused, goal-directed, sought and received mentorship with humility, and continues to pay it forward to future generations. His tenacity is infectious. He was not stopped by racism but became more determined to succeed and to bring others along in spite of it —the embodiment of Angela Davis’ motto, “lift as you climb”.
Senator Oliver has many remarkable accomplishments. In his early years, he dreamt of being a diplomat, but his life took a different course. Yet, he was a natural diplomat in every sense of the word. He represented Canada in many international spaces, and always with style, poise and grace that presented as effortless diplomacy. Yet, Oliver writes that he was often nervous and anxious in these situations. As someone who has made the transition from private to public life, I’ve learned that such feelings are normal and okay.
A little-known accomplishment that makes him a significant diplomat at home is his role in creating scholarships for students of African descent. Such scholarships for youth are the gifts that keep on giving as they help to remove financial barriers that prevent marginalized students from achieving post-secondary education, which is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty.
I was very humbled and moved by reading this autobiography as I am one of the students who benefitted from his leadership, mentorship, sponsorship, and human rights advocacy. I stand on his shoulders. The word Ubuntu comes to mind: “I am because you are! You are therefore I am”. Oliver’s message of hope and commitment to give back to one’s community has taken root in my own journey.
This book chronicles some of his most salient and memorable moments and achievements. It is a tool that can inspire and motivate the next generation of young people who live on the margins. It will help us to understand that yes, we can dream and yes, we can defy low expectations, and yes, we can learn to find comfort outside our own comfort zones.
I loved reading this inspirational autobiography. I learned more about Senator Oliver’s early life, his family, and his approaches to cultivating relationships; and how through those relationships, he broke barriers to enact social change. Of interest to this audience is his compelling stories about the collaborative approach to social policy development and implementation. There are lessons from his playbook that could be used by others as we continue the work to dismantle systemic racism and systems of oppression.
This is the story of a life well-lived. Oliver takes the reader on a journey from the beginning of his life to a poignant discussion of his rare heart disease. Although he was only given six months to live when first diagnosed, he and his devoted wife Linda have dealt with it over the past six years. His prose is powerful in describing events, spaces, conditions, and scenery. It is easy to imagine yourself in those spaces he so eloquently describes. He could easily have pursued a writing career. Who knows? Maybe that is the next chapter for the Honourable Don Oliver.
Source: Policy Magazine