Order of Nova Scotia is best birthday gift
January 24, 2019
Clotilda Douglas-Yakimchuk couldn’t have asked for a better birthday gift.
Health issues prevented her from attending the Order of Nova Scotia investiture ceremony last November.
The disappointment, however, quickly subsided upon learning that a special presentation ceremony was arranged for January 11 – her 87th birthday – to receive the province’s highest civilian honour.
For the Nova Scotia Hospital School of Nursing (NSHSN) first Black graduate, it was the best anniversary present.
“Nothing could beat receiving the highest award in my home province on my birthday,” said Douglas-Yakimchuk who was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2003. “To have my five children with me for the occasion was special.”
The recognition also allowed the octogenarian to deeply reflect on her immigrant parents, who were her heroes, journey in Canada and the challenges they faced while assimilating in a new country.
She is part of a generation of first Barbadians that went to work at the integrated steel plant in Whitney Pier.
Arthur and Lillian Coward arrived in 1914.
“They taught me to be determined and never give up along with the importance of securing a solid education and contributing to your community,” Douglas-Yakimchuk, a former Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia vice-president, said. “I learnt from them that you are not only here to get whatever you can, but to play a part in giving back and helping to solve issues that arise in your community.”
She needed plenty of resolve to deal with racial exclusion while trying to enter nursing school.
“I applied to many and none of them responded,” Douglas-Yakimchuk pointed out. “My brother (the late Alfred Coward was a musician who starred in the first CBC variety show aired in the Maritimes and taught classical & jazz piano and voice) was doing pre-medicine at Dalhousie University at the time and he suggested that I try the Nova Scotia Hospital. He also felt that psychiatric nurses, would fill a critical role and there would always be a need for them. He was so right.”
The thrill of becoming the first Black to graduate from the NSHSN in 1954 was soon tempered when White patients brought their unhealthy prejudices and biases to Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth.
“They didn’t feel that Blacks should be taking care of them and some called me the n-word,” said Douglas-Yakimchuk who is in the Nova Scotia Black Hall of Fame. “There was however this one female who didn’t want me to have anything to do with her. Six weeks later, she came around and started to speak to me and it became virtually impossible for me to avoid her. We became friends and she gave me a Royal Doulton tea cup and saucer after she was discharged from my unit.”
The gesture was very significant to Douglas-Yakimchuk who was recognized with a Harry Jerome Award in 1991 and is the only Black to preside over the Registered Nurses Association of Nova Scotia which is now the College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia.
“It reminds me how people can change when you look beyond colour and get to know someone,” she said.
The Royal Doulton set takes pride of place in Sharon Douglas’ Mississauga home. She’s Douglas-Yakimchuk’s daughter.
“I am doing community development work just like my mom did and in my regular conversations with her, I lay out some of the issues we are having in the community right now,” said the United Way Greater Toronto consultant. “Sometimes, she will say, ‘Sharon, 30 years ago we were talking about that and it’s sad we are still having the same conversation’. In those moments, I will look at that Royal Doulton set and remind myself that people can actually change if the will is there. That’s one of the reasons why I believe in dialogue.”
Finding nursing uniforms fashionable and professional inspired Douglas-Yakimchuk to pursue that career.
“I liked the uniform and thought I would look pretty nice in it,” she said. “But what I soon found out was that it was a career that had to do with compassion, empathy and understanding people.”
Douglas-Yakimchuk was the admission unit head nurse for three years up until 1957 before heading to Grenada where she was the director of nursing for nine years at the island’s psychiatric hospital.
After graduating from the NSHSN, she met and married Grenadian-born Benson Douglas who wanted to return home to make a contribution after graduating at the top of his class in 1954 from Dalhousie University with an undergraduate degree in law. He was chosen to deliver the valedictory address and graduated the following year with a Master of Laws.
While at the psychiatry hospital that was bombed by mistake during the United States invasion of Grenada in 1983, Douglas-Yakimchuk expanded the outpatient psychiatry clinic before returning to Nova Scotia with her husband in 1967 and becoming a staff nurse at the Sydney City Hospital.
The couple separated and Douglas went back to Grenada and became a judge before his death in January 1975.
She spent 24 years at Cape Breton’s psychiatry hospital, serving as nursing supervisor for five years and the first director of staff development for 19 years before being appointed director of educational services at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital. She held that position for two years.
After retiring in 1994, Douglas-Yakimchuk contributed her vast knowledge and expertise in the field of mental health to the development of the community residential workers program at the Nova Scotia Community College Marconi campus. The Nova Scotia Department of Community Services recognized the program by adopting it as the minimum standard of care for residential services in the community. She also collaborated with faculty at Marconi campus to develop and deliver their long-term care program
Douglas-Yakimchuk was also the president of the Cape Breton Council of Senior Citizens & Pensioners, a founding president of the Black Community Development Organization that provided affordable housing in low-income communities and focussed on education and culture, and a key contributor in the compilation of ‘Reflections of Care: A Century of Nursing’ that tells the stories of Cape Breton nurses who graduated from the hospital-based school of nursing. Proceeds from the sale of books were used to create an award for Cape Breton University (CBU) nursing students.
Nearly three decades after being part of a committee that vigorously lobbied for a nursing degree program at CBU that admitted its first class in 2007, the university awarded the trailblazer with an honorary doctor of laws degree in 2010 alongside students graduating from the nursing program she helped create.
Douglas-Yakimchuk, whose second husband -- two-term Sydney Ward 5 alderman Dan Yakimchuk -- died in 2011, broke the colour barrier at NSHSN six years after Ruth Bailey and Gwyneth Barton became the first Black women to graduate from a Canadian nursing school. They were trained at Halifax Children’s Hospital.
Bernice Redmon, who had to go to the United States to acquire her nursing certification, was the first Black nurse to practice public health in Canada when she joined the Nova Scotia department of public health in 1945.