KENTVILLE, NS - A Wolfville native and retired senator facing serious health issues says he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support as he celebrated a milestone birthday.
A birthday celebration was held recently for Donald Oliver at the Pleasant Valley Community Hall in Queens County, not far from his home. Dozens of friends and relatives came to celebrate Oliver and his contributions to Canada.
He said that, considering his health concerns, he never thought he would make it to age 80. More than three years ago, Oliver was diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis with peripheral neuropathy, a rare heart disease for which there is no known cure. There is no treatment for this disease in Canada.
Oliver has been travelling with his wife to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, one of the largest and best medical institutions in the world, for infusion treatments and other care every 20 days.
“They have highly experienced researchers doing advanced studies and there are some of the finest doctors and surgeons available anywhere,” Oliver said. “I have been blessed to be able to be treated there.”
Oliver was appointed to the Senate of Canada by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in September 1990 and he served until his retirement in November 2013. He was the first African Canadian to have a seat in the Senate.
Oliver said he enjoyed representing the interests and concerns of the people of Nova Scotia as a senator. He is most proud of the work he was able to do “knocking down and challenging the systemic barriers to the advancement of visible minorities in both the public and private sector.” This reached from “senior bureaucracy to Bay Street”, in Canada and beyond.
“I am proud of the work I did promoting the business case for diversity,” Oliver said.
One particularly memorable engagement was when Prime Minister Stephen Harper took Oliver to Washington where, by pre-arrangement, Oliver was given a one-on-one meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House. Oliver said this was “an awesome experience, one I shall not soon forget.”
Oliver received birthday greetings from three former prime ministers, Mulroney, Harper and Joe Clark. Clark called Oliver on the phone while Mulroney and Harper each sent letters. Oliver said he heard from a great number of other political friends as well.
Oliver’s advice to current senators is to remember that the institution and its members are created and exist as an essential ingredient of the Parliament of Canada. In the 1867 Constitution, it was designed to function for the protection of Canadians and all of the country’s cherished institutions.
“Senators must remember the constitution says they must represent their regions and represent minorities,” Oliver said.
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Oliver was born in Wolfville and spent the first 21 years of his life there. He went through the Wolfville school system and attended Acadia University, along with his four brothers and sisters. He received written greetings from several members of the Wolfville High class of 1956 at his birthday celebration.
Oliver said his father’s and mother’s families, the Olivers and the Whites, have an involved and compassionate relationship with Wolfville and Acadia that extends back more than 110 years. He and many of his relatives have been honoured to receive honorary degrees from Acadia.
Before being appointed to the Senate, Oliver was a senior partner with Stewart McKelvie Stirling and Scales barristers of Halifax. He practiced law, taught at three universities and did extensive pro bono work in the community. Oliver has also been a farmer, businessman and Cordon Bleu chef.
Oliver’s personal interests include gardening, cooking, reading and travelling. He enjoys writing and lecturing on public policy issues and said he has “developed an interest in the great wines of Burgundy.”