Calvin Woodrow Ruck, CM, senator, social worker, human rights activist, author (born 4 September 1925 in Sydney, NS; died 19 October 2004 in Ottawa, ON). Ruck took leading roles in the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the NS Association of Social Workers, and the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia. He was the third Black Canadian appointed to the Senate.
Calvin Ruck was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, to parents who had immigrated from Barbados. He left school after completing the 10th grade to take a job as a labourer with Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation in Sydney. In 1945, he found work as a sleeping car porter with the Canadian National Railways (CNR), the only position on the rails that was available to Black men. Though it would be years before Ruck’s work as an activist and social worker began, experiencing the racism to which Black people were commonly subjected at the CNR was a political awakening for him. “I felt obliged to protest,” he later said. But organizing at the time seemed impossible. “We were afraid to rock the boat. We thought we might end up with no job at all.”
In 1954, Ruck and his wife Joyce purchased a plot of land in Westphal, a white suburb of Halifax, but were soon presented with a petition issued by local residents who wanted to bar them from the community. Though the petitioners were unsuccessful, the ordeal left a lasting impression on Ruck and motivated him to take action on issues of racial segregation.
One of Ruck’s first political actions around this time took aim at local barbers who refused to cut Black people’s hair, a practice he and his children protested by sitting in the shops and refusing to leave. “He used that tactic to kind of intimidate people,” recalled his friend Henry Bishop, curator of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia. “It was, ‘Until you cut our hair we won’t leave,’ and that would drive business away.”
In the 1970s, Ruck enrolled in the Maritime School of Social Work at Dalhousie University. He graduated in 1979 and began work with the Department of Social Services to improve housing, education, employment and healthcare in a number of small communities outside of Halifax. He became an increasingly active member of the community throughout these years, taking leading roles in the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the NS Association of Social Workers, and the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia.
Political Career and Writing
His professional introduction to politics came in 1981 when he was appointed to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, an office he held for five years. In 1986, Ruck published Canada's Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction, 1916–1920, a history of the Black veterans of the First World War. (See No. 2 Construction Battalion.) In 1993, his campaign for stronger historical recognition of the battalion led to the construction of a commemorative cairn at Pictou, Nova Scotia.
Did you know?
For years, Calvin Ruck tried to get the Canadian government to recognize the heroic actions of Black veteran Jeremiah Jones during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. His efforts continued even after Jones’s death in 1950. In 2010, the federal government finally awarded Jones a Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service.
Toward the end of his career, he received several honours and awards for his work in anti-racist activism, including the Order of Canada, as well as honorary degrees from Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College. In 1998, Ruck became the third Black Canadian ever appointed to the Senate.
In 2004, after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Ruck died at his home in Ottawa. After his passing, Nova Scotia Senator Donald H. Oliver stated that “Calvin Ruck devoted his time and efforts to the service of others. During his life he worked as a janitor, delivery driver, social worker, author, human rights officer and finally as a senator. Regardless of the job, he never lost sight of his ultimate goal — improving the lives of all Nova Scotians. Indeed, he devoted his career and life to the betterment of others, particularly Nova Scotia's Black community.”