As the Black Lives Matter movement advances, there have been many, many new books released focussing on the history of slavery, segregation and outright racism that existed and still exists in Canada. This is particularly true in Atlantic Canada where many former slaves and black Loyalists sought freedom and new lives, only to face the same issues they were escaping from in the Thirteen Colonies.
One of the literary benefits of the BLM initiative is that we are discovering our own Black leaders in our past. Viola Desmond has come to the fore, but she was never a spokesperson or advocate for desegregation in Canada, she was more a symbol of it. In a new book edited by Ronald Caplan of Breton Books, the spotlight is squarely on Pearleen Oliver, a true crusader for civil rights. She and her husband, the Reverend William P. Oliver were active in the Halifax area from the mid-thirties to Pearleen’s death in 2008 at age 91. Throughout that time, she was instrumental in getting black nursing students accepted in Halifax-area hospitals, getting Little Black Sambo out of the schools, breaking colour bars, and helping scores of young girls to pursue education and religion. Pearleen was also very active in speaking out about injustices whenever and wherever she could.
“So I was asked to go to another dinner. I went into every hotel. Went in the main door, was led in and taken to the table where I wouldn’t be allowed to sit ordinarily, and served a beautiful dinner. And I got up and told them how bad things were for my people, and I was not nervous because I was telling the same story over and over. I not only hit Nova Scotia, I hit Canada.
So, when I hear the kids today talking about racism, I just think, they don’t even know. They weren’t born, and they don’t even know what it was like. They can go into any hotel they want to go into, eat in any restaurant, live on any street they want to live. We couldn’t do that, so we had a real battle to fight.”
Mr. Caplan’s book is based on recorded interviews with Ms. Oliver, personal papers an photographs made available by her family for him to construct this informative and highly readable book. Written in the “voice” of Pearleen, it has a certain charm and the reader feels as if they are listening to her talk. There are also several glossy pages of black and white and colour photographs which are a nice touch. All in all, a very fine and informative book from a small Cape Breton publisher.
Additionally, all royalties for the book are donated by the family of Pearleen and William P. Oliver to a Pearleen Oliver memorial fund of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.
About the Editor: Ronald Caplan is the publisher of Cape Breton’s Magazine 1972-1999 He is the editor and publisher of Breton Books and the author of A Stone for Andrew Dunphy. For his contribution to the preservation of Canadian culture and heritage, he has received several recognitions including an honorary degree and a scholarship in his name from Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia’s Cultural Life Award, and the Order of Canada. He serves on the Advisory Committee of the Public Archives of Nova Scotia.
- Pearleen Oliver: Canada’s Black Crusader for Civil Rights, Edited by Ronald Caplan
- Paperback : 112 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1926908813
- ISBN-13 : 978-1926908816
- Publisher : Breton Books (Sept. 10 2020)
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