(9 September, 1943- 26 January, 2013)
Daurene Lewis scored important “firsts,” including the title of Canada’s first female Black mayor. Her favourite quotation was from Rosemary Brown, Canada’s first Black female member of a provincial legislature: “Remember you are twice blessed … you’re Black and you’re a woman.” (McRae). Her lifetime resonated with protest against injustice.
Born in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia in 1943, her family proudly claimed descent from Black Loyalists who settled in Canada after the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Upon graduation from high school, she trained as a nurse, worked in Toronto and Yarmouth, and taught at Dalhousie University. Later she ran her own weaving and design business and earned a Master of Business Administration from Halifax’s St Mary’s University. She was also director of the Centre for Women in Business at Canada’s women’s university, Mount Saint Vincent, a board member of the Vanier Institute for the Family and chaired the Africville Heritage Trust to address the loss of Halifax’s north-end Black community. At her death she was principal for the Nova Scotia Community College.
Her family history provided a firm foundation for achievement. She never questioned that she would be attending university after completing high school. The National Film Board documentary Black Mother Black Daughter (1989) portrayed a woman who was determined to get all the education she could. Lewis never married and had no children. She offered a humorous explanation for those choices, suggesting that if she had taken a planned trip to Europe with two high-school friends, she might have returned with a husband as they did (Sage).
Like many other women, single or married, Lewis dedicated herself to care-giving, both for her mother and in the public sphere. Her desire to care for her ailing mother prompted her return home from Toronto when she was between nursing jobs. It also offered her an opportunity to take up the family tradition of weaving. This in turn led to her second career as a textile artist and entrepreneur.
Lewis also took up a political career, first serving on the Annapolis Royal Town Council in 1979. Three years later, she was appointed deputy mayor. In 1984 she won the top job, marking her as both the province’s first Black mayor and the first Black woman elected to such a position in Canada. In 1988, her unsuccessful bid to join the House of Assembly as a Liberal made her the first woman and African-Canadian to run for such office in Nova Scotia.
Lewis remained wary of defining her political career only by notable “firsts.” Shortly after her election, she told Nova Scotia’s Herald Chronicle that she just wanted to be known as a good civic official “not a good lady mayor or a good black lady mayor.” At that time, there were only 13 Black residents in Annapolis Royale. As she explained in 1989, “the black vote did not put me in” (Lightstone).
Despite such denials, the racial and gendered dimensions of her victories remain remarkable: they represent a significant shift in Canadian social and political practices. Lewis was born only a few years before Black women could register in the province’s nursing schools. She was three years old when Viola Desmond (1914-1965) made history by refusing a segregated seat in a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia (Backhouse), and ten when school segregation ended in her province. Although a prominent and productive member of his community, Lewis’ father could never get his hair cut in a local barber shop (Lightstone). Political welcome was similarly slow across Canada. Not until 1968 did Ontario Conservative Lincoln Alexander became Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament and not until 1972 was New Democrat Rosemary Brown elected on the west coast. Nova Scotia lacked a Black legislator until 1993 (the Liberal, Wayne Adams).
When not in office, Lewis remained an active member of the community. Her explanation set out her philosophy: “Involvement on boards, commissions and advisory councils allows me to have input that will help shape policy and practice. Too many of us are limited by societal convention and geographical perspectives to live life to the fullest. I want people to feel valued, happy and excited about their very existence.” (McRae). She served as Chair of the Africville Heritage Trust Board, which aimed to restore some of the iconic community that had fallen to bulldozers and racism in the 1960s. In 1993 she received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Mount Saint Vincent University. Two years later, she accepted the United Nations Global Citizenship award. In 2002 she became a Member of the Order of Canada and was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.
Lewis’ path from a daughter whose father could not receive basic services to a distinguished citizen captured Canada’s slowly shifting attitude to racial prejudice. Her life also confirmed the value of individual action. As she said, “If I could teach one thing to the next generation, it would be that no one should accept the status quo” (McRae).
Backhouse, Constance. Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 . Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Hamilton, Sylvia and Claire Preito. Black Mother, Black Daughter National Film Board of Canada, 1989
Lightstone, Michael. “Respected Trailblazer Daurene Lewis Dies,” January 27, 2013
Mahoney, Jill. “Mayor was a trailblazer for black women,” Globe and Mail, January 27, 2013.
McRae, Ricardo. “Dr. Daurene Lewis,” Who’s Who in Black Canada, Accessed April 5, 2013
Sage, Amanda. “Dr. Daurene Lewis, nurse-educator-politician-catalyst” August 17, 2011.