Donald Oliver

Ethiopia, 1962

By Kate Wilson

A charcoal drawing of a young boy and girl hangs in Senator Donald Oliver’s home in Nova Scotia. He met these children in 1962 when he went to Ethiopia one summer as a Crossroader and they continue to remind him of the time he spent there.

“I look at them quite frequently and remember the joy that I received in working in the community and meeting the Ethiopians who are a quiet, gentle people,” says Senator Oliver. “It just takes me back to 1962 and the change that summer made in me and my life and what I’ve dedicated my life to do.”

Senator Oliver was a university student when he went to Ethiopia with a group of Canadian and American youth to help rebuild a community devastated by drought.

“Many elderly people and children had died so there was not much of a community left,” he remembers.

Before leaving for Ethiopia, Senator Oliver went to Washington, D.C. for orientation training where he was invited to the White House to receive a message from U.S. President John F. Kennedy. He also met the “inspiring” founder of Crossroads, Dr. James Robinson.

“James Robinson was a black man and a black preacher who understood the relationship between Afro-Americans, and indeed Afro-Canadians, and our motherland Africa,” says Senator Oliver. “He just said it’s time that we reached back and built bridges because there are a number of Africans in Canada and in the United States who are the [descendants] of the slaves.

“One of the ways he wanted to do that was for us in North America to give back and I think that was the essence of his vision.”

For Senator Oliver, the experience allowed him to connect to his past and give something back to the land of his ancestors.

“It was about learning more about the people and the people that I came from,” he says. “It was a huge educational experience, but not a cultural shock.”

The importance of giving back is something Senator Oliver has continued to foster in his own life and the lives of Canadians.

“If we believe in such things as human rights and diversity and equality and the fact that we are all equal under God,” he says, “we should be doing something to break down the differences between the haves and have-nots.

“It’s not good enough to just raise a few dollars,” he continues, “but I do think you should become personally involved and personally engaged.”

Having the opportunity to volunteer overseas and connect with a world outside of your own to share and learn is something that Senator Oliver wishes all Canadians could experience.

“It seems to me that is one of the great lessons that I learned early on with my experience with Crossroads,” Senator Oliver says. “You have to reach out; you have to remove your own ego and look out for the good in everybody else.

“Even though the Americans and Canadians had more material things than the people we were working with and for in Ethiopia, we had an awful lot to learn from them and I think that is one of the great lessons that can come from organizations like Crossroads.”