Becoming Senator Oliver: Excerpt from A Matter of Equality, a Memoir by Don Oliver
A Matter of Equality
Doland H Oliver
In the summer of 1990, I was working in my Halifax office when one of the firm’s partners knocked on my door. He was well known as a Liberal, politically. “Did you see this?” he asked me. He showed me the Toronto Star, which had run an article listing potential candidates to fill the Atlantic Canadian Senate seats. To my surprise, my name and photo were among them. “They are thinking about you as a possible nominee for the vacant Senate seat in Nova Scotia!” he said.
I looked at my face in the newspaper. “No, I had not seen that,” I told him. “That’s a surprise. Maybe it’s a trial balloon from the PMO.”
I put it out of my mind.
A couple of months later I was in Toronto meeting with some potential investors from Japan to respond to an interest they had in the real estate project I was developing with my business partners from Germany. We were using one of the boardrooms at the accounting firm Deloitte. The negotiations were taking some time because most sentences had to be translated. In between the translations, the phone rang in the corner of the boardroom. I excused myself and answered. “Hello?”
“Is this Don Oliver?” the voice asked.
“Yes,” I said, feeling a panic rising. Who would be calling me here and now?
“Where have you been? We have been trying to reach you for days. The prime minister wants to speak to you. Don’t move from where you are,” the voice instructed me. “Hang up now and in five minutes the phone will ring again. It will be the prime minister.”
Well. I went to my Japanese colleagues and asked if they would kindly sit in the ante-room while I took a private call. I didn’t mention it was the prime minister, but they agreed. Right at the appointed minute, the phone rang.
“Hello Donnie,” came the instantly recognizable sonorous, warm voice of Brian Mulroney. “Donnie, how is your wife Linda? Is she still working in telecommunications? And is Carolynn still doing well in school?”
I said yes to those questions and some others, and that seemed to give him some confidence that he was speaking with the right person. He spoke about how I’d joined the Progressive Conservative Party in the 1950s and had been a faithful, consistent volunteer for decades. He knew I’d been the chief legal director to several national electoral campaigns, that I had supported him for the leadership in 1976 and again in 1984, and that I had served for years on the executive of the PC Party both provincially and nationally.
“And over all those years as a volunteer without pay, no one really said thank you,” he said. “You have also done a lot of work for your Black community as well, so I am now going to thank you by appointing you to the Senate of Canada.”
I could open my mouth, but it produced no sounds. Thoughts flashed through my head as I processed this extraordinary conversation. Could I do the job? Could I live up to his trust?
I finally got my tongue moving. “Thank you, Prime Minister. Thank you very, very much. That is very generous. I am deeply honoured that you would do this,” I said.