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Tuesday February 12, 2013

She was Canada's first black female mayor

Elected in Annapolis Royal, N.S., this magnetic and distinctive personality never stopped working

Special to The Globe and Mail

A descendant of some of the several thousand Black Loyalists who came to Nova Scotia from the United States, beginning in 1783, to escape slavery and war, Daurene Lewis became the first black woman to be elected mayor in Canada, leading the small town her family had settled in seven generations before.

After winning the mayoral race in the historic town of Annapolis Royal in 1984, Ms. Lewis said she wanted to be known simply as an effective mayor. "I just want to be a good mayor, not a good lady mayor or a good black lady mayor," she told Halifax's Chronicle Herald newspaper that year.

In the election, Ms. Lewis is reported to have defeated her white male opponent 246 to 78.

"Yes, I was the first black female mayor in Canada, but I kept insisting I had not been put in as the black representative," she told The Canadian Press in 1989, following her term as mayor. "At the time, there were only 13 blacks in the community. The black vote did not put me in."

A nurse and weaver who ran a studio in the centre of town, Ms. Lewis first entered political life in 1979, when she ran for a seat on the Annapolis Royal town council. She championed the community's history and backed its revitalization efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1982, she was appointed deputy mayor and two years later elected mayor. "I always had it in the back of my mind that if you want to make any changes, you need to be involved," she said.

After her term as mayor she took a stab at provincial politics, becoming the first black woman in Nova Scotia to run in a provincial election. In 1988, she ran for the Liberals. When she lost, she quit politics.

Born in 1943 in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia's first capital, Ms. Lewis traced her lineage to Rose Fortune, who as a young girl had escaped slavery during the American Revolution and settled in Annapolis Royal. She went onto become a successful businesswoman, carting luggage between the ferry docks and nearby homes and hotels, and acted as the town's unofficial police officer, reportedly the first female police officer in North America. After her death, Ms. Fortune's relatives, including Ms. Lewis' father, James, carried on her business under the name Lewis Transfer.

Although he was a respected local businessman, Mr. Lewis couldn't escape Nova Scotia's racial segregation. "When my father died, they closed down the town, they closed the schools, but he never had his hair cut in a barber shop," Ms. Lewis told The Canadian Press in 1989.

While she didn't experience the same racial discrimination as her father, Ms. Lewis felt Nova Scotia had a long way to go in overcoming racial barriers. Five years ago, she told The Chronicle Herald that police officers regularly pulled the cars of black people over, or slowed down to stare at her during her early morning walks in her affluent Halifax-area neighbourhood. On one occasion, an officer even questioned her about where she lived and what she was doing. "In one way it's annoying and it's maddening; on the other hand I know I'm being watched so I'm not going to get mugged," she told the newspaper in 2008.

Her parents insisted that their three children get a good education, so Ms. Lewis went to Dalhousie University to study nursing. "It wasn't, 'what are you going to do after high school?' It was, 'which university are you going to and what are you going to study?'"

As a nurse, she moved to Toronto to work, but when her mother, Peryle, a skilled weaver, became ill she returned home to Annapolis Royal to care for her. Before her mother died, she learned how to weave to preserve a family tradition.

Before long, Ms. Lewis was an accomplished textile artist herself and opened a weaving and design studio across the street from the town hall. It became a gathering place for like-minded creative people and anyone else who wanted to discuss ideas or town politics.

"Daurene had a magnetic personality," said Wayne Boucher, a friend and painter. "She was always smiling and jovial."

Ms. Lewis's magnetism drew Phil Roberts to the town. After reading about her in the provincial paper, he decided to visit her studio. With Bach playing in the background while she worked at her loom, Ms. Lewis welcomed him warmly. When he told her he was a poet, writer and an odd-job type of guy considering moving to the town, she encouraged him.

"The town is full of people like you. You'll fit right in," she said. He did, so much so that he later became mayor of Annapolis Royal himself.

"She was straight-talking and had a great sense of humour," Mr. Roberts said. "I don't think anyone who ever met her would forget her."

A large woman most of her life, with a sense of style and a love of bright colours, Ms. Lewis had a distinctive presence. She slimmed down later in life, losing close to 40 kilograms. Often wearing beautiful fabrics, which she found on her travels around the world, she was also at home sifting through used clothing at Frenchy's thrift stores in Nova Scotia, where she uncovered many elegant outfits, some of which she wore to events at Rideau Hall. If an admirer asked where she had found such a stunning dress, she would simply say that it came from Nova Scotia.

When Ms. Lewis was asked to give a short speech at Rideau Hall following her investiture into the Order of Canada in 2002, she spoke for a couple of minutes, thanking everyone, before breaking out into a beautiful a cappella song.

"It was the highlight of the evening," said her cousin, Michael Tynes. When he asked Ms. Lewis, who sang in church choirs, if she had planned to sing that night, she claimed it had been spontaneous.

At the time of her death, Ms. Lewis was the principal of two Nova Scotia Community College campuses in the Halifax region. She joined the college in 2001 and played a pivotal role in its growth and development over the next decade, including the opening of a new campus in Dartmouth and developing new programs, said Bruce Tawse, the college's vice-president, academic.

Prior to joining the college, Ms. Lewis completed her Master of Business Administration at St. Mary's University and served as executive director at Mount Saint Vincent University's Centre for Women in Business.

A tireless volunteer who served on many national and provincial boards, including the Premier's Council on the Economy, Ms. Lewis was chair of the Africville Heritage Trust and was instrumental in building a replica of Halifax's historic Africville church in the former black settlement. She found herself in the midst of controversy in 2011 when some in the black community protested the trust's hiring of a white woman as executive director. Allegations of past misdeeds later came to light and the woman was replaced.

"She was a trailblazer if ever there was one, a true leader and a passionate volunteer - a great Nova Scotian whose advice I valued," Nova Scotia's Premier Darrell Dexter said.

Ms. Lewis died suddenly on Jan. 26 in a Halifax hospital. The exact cause of death was not immediately known. She was 69. She leaves her sister Avis, aunt Joyce, several nieces and nephews and countless friends.

"If I could teach one thing to the next generation, it would be that no one should accept the status quo," Ms. Lewis once said.

A celebration of Daurene Lewis's life will be held on Sunday, Feb. 17 at 2 p.m. at the Annapolis Royal Fire Hall and a memorial service on Saturday, April 27 at 11 a.m. at Halifax's Cathedral Church of All Saints.

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