As a barrister, professor, entrepreneur, statesman and advocate, Donald Oliver has served the people of Canada and Nova Scotia with honour, distinction and achievement for almost five decades.
Donald Oliver retired from the Senate of Canada in November 2013, but his work in advancing the interests of visible minorities in Canada and around the world continues. He is also actively pursuing his entrepreneurial interests in Nova Scotia as the founder and owner of several companies. In addition, he is working with several businesses to promote trade and development in Africa, notably in the mining sector.
Donald Oliver was born in Wolfville, Nova Scotia to Clifford and Helena Oliver, devout Baptists who raised their five children in a strict but loving household. He learned at a very early age about the importance of giving back and serving others.
The life of his family was largely governed by work, religion and music –values which would later define the nature of his achievements and those of his brother and sisters. Donald Oliver and his siblings came to embrace work as an opportunity to succeed and to help others.
Their family’s devotional practices also focussed on community and service of others. And music, a source of joy in the Oliver household, was likewise shared within the larger community.
Donald Oliver’s mother, Helena, the sister of the renowned contralto Portia White, was an accomplished musician and teacher. He has vivid memories of musical evenings at home when he was growing up. He especially remembers those times when he and his siblings gathered at the top of the stairs to listen as Helena Oliver accompanied Portia White on the parlour piano.
After graduating from Wolfville High School in 1956, Donald Oliver majored in history at Acadia University and completed a minor in both philosophy and English literature. He graduated with honours in 1960, earning the Ralph M. Hunt Prize in Political Science and delivering the valedictorian address.
Unsure of what he wanted to do next, Donald Oliver enrolled in a graduate program in philosophy at Acadia and considered his options. His father, Clifford hoped his son would consider theology and then pursue a career in the Church. That was a strong tradition in both his and his wife’s family.
But Donald Oliver’s interest in philosophy and theories of justice in particular, had drawn his attention in a very different direction. In 1961, he enrolled in the Faculty of Law at Dalhousie University as a Sir James Dunn scholar. He graduated three years later, receiving the G.O. Forsythe Prize for Scholarship and Character.
In 1965, Donald Oliver was called to the Bar of Nova Scotia and began to practice law with the prestigious Halifax law firm, Stewart McKelvey Stirling and Scales. Over the next 36 years, he worked with two other firms, primarily in the field of civil litigation, and taught law at several universities.
Over this time, Donald Oliver became an accomplished businessman, founding two companies, which he now leads. He is considered an expert on corporate governance and is a director of or consultant to several Canadian corporations. He continues to volunteer his time and expertise to community and cultural organizations throughout Canada.
Throughout his career, Donald Oliver has also fought hard to eliminate racism and advance opportunities for Black Canadians and other visible minorities. For example, working with members of his family, he was instrumental in bringing about provincial legislation to end racial discrimination in Nova Scotia in the late 1960s.
In 2004, he also raised $500,000 to lead the most comprehensive national study conducted in Canada that definitively proves the business case for diversity. This research is a sobering reminder that there are systemic barriers to employment equity in Canada. And it showed that Donald Oliver was well ahead of the curve in highlighting the implications of Canada’s changing demographic landscape and the urgency for governments and corporations to address these barriers.
Donald Oliver has since spoken to dozens of audiences throughout Canada, South America, the United Kingdom and Europe about the urgency of fostering diverse and inclusive organizational cultures.
Donald Oliver has long been an advocate for important, game-changing policy and action. And as such, politics was his passion. While he was a student at Acadia University, he met Robert Stanfield, who was the Premier of Nova Scotia at the time. The two men became close friends and allies, because they shared the same political ideals and a strong sense of social responsibility.
When Premier Stanfield retired from political life, he confided to Donald Oliver that one of his deepest regrets was not having worked more vigorously to promote equality of opportunity for the Black people of Nova Scotia and members of the First Nations. He bequeathed that responsibility to Donald Oliver, encouraging him to consider more active participation in the Conservative Party.
Donald Oliver has generously met his friend’s call to political service.
For fifty years, he has been an active member of the Progressive Conservative Party, assuming numerous roles and responsibilities within the Party’s executive.
Notably, he took leave from his work to serve, at his own expense, as the Director, Legal Affairs for the Party in six General Elections, volunteering three months of his time and expertise each time.
In addition, he served terms as National Vice-President – Atlantic Region with the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, was Director of P.C. Canada Fund and a member of the Audit Committee of P.C. Canada Fund. He served for years as Constitution Chairman and as a member of the Finance Committee for the P.C. Party of Nova Scotia and well as this Party’s former Vice-President.
When he was summoned by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in September, 1990 to serve in the upper house, Donald Oliver has continued to work hard to serve the people of Nova Scotia and Canada with distinction. He helped countless numbers of his constituents and became an even stronger advocate for the causes he believes in.
Equally important, Donald Oliver has played a vital role in shaping laws and policy at both the national and international levels. He
chaired several Standing Committees in the Senate, including Rules, Procedures and Rights of Parliament; Legal and Constitutional Affairs; National Finance; Agriculture and Forestry; and Transport and Communications.
He acted as Co-chair of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons on a Code of Conduct for Parliamentarians. And in 2006, he was the sponsor in the Senate of the Federal Accountability Act and chaired the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee responsible for the Bill.
Donald Oliver also worked on a number of Private Members’ Bills, including a bill to amend sections of the criminal code dealing with stalking, a bill to address the issue of SPAM and a bill to elect the Speaker of the Senate.
In addition, Donald Oliver was a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an organization with Observer status at the United Nations, for more than 15 years. In 2012, he chaired the annual Parliamentary Conference on the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, co-organized by the IPU and the European Union. It brought together legislators from more than 70 countries to discuss trade as a tool of economic growth, job creation and poverty alleviation.
Working with the Director-General of the WTO and hundreds of delegates, Donald Oliver successfully achieved consensus on a shared commitment to an “open, non-discriminatory and fair multilateral trading system” to encourage economic growth, sustainable development and create jobs worldwide.
In the fall of 2013, as President of the Canadian Group, Donald Oliver also hosted more than 1500 delegates for the 127th Assembly of the IPU held in Quebec City. The assembly’s overall theme – citizenship, identity, and cultural diversity in a globalized world – was the focus of a special debate. And it led to the assembly’s adoption of a declaration aimed at promoting and protecting diversity in all its spheres – cultural, linguistic, ethnic, racial and religious.
In recognition of his dedication to making Canada, and the world, a better place, Donald Oliver has received five honorary doctorates and many other awards and distinctions. For example, he is a Lifetime Honorary Governor of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and an Honorary Life Director of the Neptune Theatre Foundation.
He also received the 2011 DreamKEEPERS Life Achievement Award from the Canadian Martin Luther King Day Coalition, the Freedom Award from The Black Cultural Centre For Nova Scotia and the Distinguished Man of Honour Award from the Black Business & Professional Association in Toronto.