Celebrating Pearleen Oliver: The story of what one voice can accomplish

March 01, 2021 | RBC Wealth Management


We don't have the ability to undo or change the past, but we can elevate the people that stood up for others and said every voice counts. Dr. Pearleen Oliver is one of those people—and someone every Canadian should know.


For 60 years, Oliver stood up and spoke out for Black Canadians. “Dr. Oliver's contribution is quite outstanding for her time,” says Ronald Caplan, editor of Pearleen Oliver: Canada's Black Crusader for Civil Rights. “You don't expect to find her with posters in 1945, walking up and down the street saying 'Black lives matter' but that's what she was doing—[she's] evidence that one voice can make a great difference.”

That's why the Breton Books publisher, together with First Book Canada and RBC, is donating one hundred copies of the book to students at J.L. Ilsley High School in Halifax during Black History Month. The event includes a reading from the book by El Jones, an activist and Halifax's former poet laureate, and a Q&A with Caplan, as well as Oliver's son, Dr. Lesley Oliver.

The reading comes at a time when society is again being called upon to face the ugly truths of systemic racism and offers a chance for young Canadians to learn more about our country's Black history. Oliver is a key player in some of the turning points for racial discrimination in Canada.

Championing Black communities for 60 years

Oliver's life intersects with Viola Desmond, the Canadian civil rights activist and businesswoman who challenged racial segregation when she refused to leave a whites-only area of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Oliver was in the courtroom as a spokesperson for Desmond's appeal. Both helped ignite the civil rights movement in Canada but until now, says Caplan, Oliver's story has gone untold.

The editor spent two years poring over transcripts and interviews (Oliver died in 2008) and edited them into a book that weaves together six decades of championing the Black community in Nova Scotia. The more Caplan dug around, the more he came across Oliver's name.

It was Oliver that challenged the nurse's training system and earned Black women the right to become nurses. She was the one who had Little Black Sambo, a racist children's book, removed from public schools and replaced with true stories of Black Canadians' contribution to the country's culture. Oliver also founded the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the Black United Front, the Black Cultural Centre and the African United Baptist Association's Women's Institute. She was the first woman moderator of the African United Baptist Church and a Chatelaine Woman of the Year.

“She is evidence of what one voice can accomplish . . . a message to all of us to have the courage to speak up and speak out,” says Caplan.

Educating the next generation

Pearleen Oliver: Canada's Black Crusader for Civil Rights was published in 2021 but Caplan says he knew he wanted to do more with it. Through a contact at RBC, he was able to get in touch with First Book Canada to help get the story in the hands of young Canadians. Caplan says it feels fitting to share Oliver's story in this way, especially given her own love for helping others. As a historian with two honorary degrees, Oliver was a prolific mentor to hundreds of young girls.

“She did a great deal of mentoring for young women, helping them to realize they should stay in school and set their hopes higher,” says Caplan. “But then she also turned around to white businessmen and said, 'you know, kids are going to leave school at grade six if they know that all the education in the world is not going to allow them to really be able to use it.'”

Teaching empathy and changing lives

As a not-for-profit, First Book Canada's mission is to get books and reading material into the hands of people that need it most. Books are critical, says Tom Best, executive director of First Book Canada. They teach empathy and change lives. “We know that if you become an active reader, it can make a huge difference in your career and other areas of your life,” he says. And a story like this, in the hands of students, could be the seed of a lifelong love of reading.

Oliver's story has never been more timely, says Caplan. “She sets goals for us and challenges us in a very powerful way . . . (and she did so) up until the very end of her life,” he adds. “She needs to not be forgotten.”

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