Donald H. Oliver, QC, CM, ONS, senator 1990–2013, lawyer, businessman (born 16 November 1938 in Wolfville, NS). Halifax lawyer Donald Oliver has been involved as a senior official in the Progressive Conservative Party since 1972. In 1990, he became the second Black Canadian and the first Black Canadian man to be appointed to the Senate of Canada. Oliver served as a senator until 2013. He is a Member of both the Order of Canada and the Order of Nova Scotia.
Early Life and Family
Donald Oliver was one of five children born to Clifford Oliver and Helena White. Both parents were devout Baptists who instilled in Donald a strong sense of community and a desire to assist those around him.
Oliver has several notable family members. His grandfather on his mother’s side, William A. White, helped form the No. 2 Construction Battalion — the first and only all-Black battalion in Canadian military history. Oliver’s aunt Portia White was a famous opera singer, and his uncles Bill and Jack White were both politicians.
Oliver attended Acadia University, majoring in history with minors in philosophy and English literature. After graduating in 1960, he enrolled in the Faculty of Law at Dalhousie University and earned his law degree in 1964.
DID YOU KNOW?
Donald Oliver’s grandfather William A. White was only the second Black person admitted to Acadia University and the first Black Canadian to receive a Doctorate of Divinity from Acadia University.
Oliver was called to the Bar of Nova Scotia in 1965. He began practicing law with Halifax firm Stewart McKelvey Stirling and Scales. Over the years, he became active in the professional community. He served on the boards of several legal committees in a career that spanned 36 years. Oliver maintained distinguished tenures both as a civil litigator and as an educator. He taught law at the Technical University of Nova Scotia, Saint Mary’s University and Dalhousie. He has also served on the executive of several private companies and lectured on human rights, the Canadian constitution and election law.
Career in Politics
Donald Oliver’s community involvement led to a career in politics. He was particularly interested in promoting equality for Black Canadians, Indigenous peoples and other racialized communities in Canada.
Inspired by former Nova Scotia premier Robert Stanfield, Oliver began working with the provincial Progressive Conservative Party in 1972. He has remained involved with the party for nearly 50 years. He served as the director of legal affairs in six general elections between 1972 and 1988. He was also national vice-president of the party, representing Atlantic Canada; as well as a director of the party’s fundraising organization, the PC Canada Fund. At the provincial level, he served as constitution chairman and as member of the PC Party of Nova Scotia’s Finance Committee. He also served as vice-president of the provincial party.
First Black Man Appointed to the Senate of Canada
On 7 September 1990, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Donald Oliver was appointed to the Senate of Canada by Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn. Oliver was the second Black Canadian appointed to the Senate, after Anne Cools in 1984, and the first Black Canadian man in the Senate.
After his appointment, Oliver served as a member of standing Senate committees on banking, trade and commerce; agriculture and forestry; and was the chairman of the standing committee on transport and communications, as well as other Senate-House of Commons committees. Oliver worked on several private Member’s bills, including one to amend the section of the Criminal Code regarding stalking, and another to address online spam.
On 4 March 2010, Oliver was nominated Speaker pro tempore, or deputy speaker, of the Senate. He retired from the Senate on 16 November 2013, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75.
Donald Oliver continued to be active in community service throughout his career. He served as president and chairman of the Halifax Children’s Aid Society; as chairman, president and director of the Neptune Theatre Foundation (see Neptune Theatre); as director of the Halifax-Dartmouth Welfare Council; as founding director of the Black United Front; and as founding president and first chairman of the Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia.
Oliver has received five honorary doctorates, including one from his alma mater Dalhousie University; it was awarded in 2003 in recognition of his lifetime of achievement, both in the public and private sectors. Oliver was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2019 and of the Order of Nova Scotia in 2020.