In the early 1950s, when Clotilda Douglas-Yakimchuk was one of the few Black people in Nova Scotia, she applied to several nursing schools but in most cases did not even receive the courtesy of a reply.
Eventually, she was admitted to the Nova Scotia Hospital School of Nursing and in 1954 became its first Black graduate. She went on to work as a nurse for the next half-century, predominantly in psychiatry. She was also a community activist devoted to social justice, the education of Black youth and the well-being of older people.
Douglas-Yakimchuk died April 15 at a hospital in Halifax, the capital. She was 89. She had tested positive for COVID-19 just a week before dying of it, her daughter Leslie Douglas-Shaw said.
In addition to her work as a nurse, Douglas-Yakimchuk was the founding president of the Black Community Development Organization, which helped provide housing to low-income people in Nova Scotia. She produced a radio show highlighting Black culture. And she contributed to a book, “Reflections of Care: A Century of Nursing in Cape Breton” (2006), the proceeds of which created an award for nursing students at Cape Breton University, where she had helped push for a nursing program.
Along the way she encountered racial barriers. White patients sometimes refused her care, though in one case the patient later apologized, and the two became friends.
In another instance, she had won election as president of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Nova Scotia, now called the College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia, which represents more than 9,000 people in that profession. She was shocked, her daughter said, when the runner-up, a white woman, asked her to step aside so that she, the white woman, could become president instead.
“The white woman said to Mum, ‘It’s not your time,’” Douglas-Shaw said. “Based on her experience as a Black woman in a race-conscious society, my mother sensed it was due to her race.”
Douglas-Yakimchuk refused to step aside and in 1988 became the organization’s first — and to this day only — Black president.
Clotilda Adessa Coward was born on Jan. 11, 1932, in the Whitney Pier neighborhood of Sydney, Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Cape Breton Island. Her family had settled there because her father, Arthur Reginald Coward, who grew up in Barbados, had answered an ad in 1914 to work in a local steel plant. He quit the plant when he felt discriminated against and started coal-delivery and liquor-delivery businesses. Her mother, Lillian Gertrude (Blackman) Coward, was a seamstress.
After becoming a nurse, Clotilda moved in 1957 with her first husband, Benson T. Douglas, to his native Grenada, where he practiced law and became a judge; she worked as director of a mental health hospital there.
They returned to Nova Scotia in 1966, seeing more work opportunities there, and she resumed work as a nurse. Douglas died in 1975. When Douglas-Yakimchuk retired in 1994, she was director of education services at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney and stayed involved in social justice projects. She married Dan Yakimchuk, a community activist, in 1984. He died in 2011.
In addition to her daughter, Douglas-Shaw, she is survived by two other daughters, Sharon Douglas and Valerie O’Neale; two sons, Carl and Kendrick Douglas; 13 grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; two stepchildren, Dale Anne and Danny Yakimchuk; three half brothers, Reginald, Rubin and Cephas Coward; and three half sisters, Cecilia and Clara Coward and Ethel Tomlinson.
Douglas-Yakimchuk received many honors, including being appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 2003 and a member of the Order of Nova Scotia in 2018.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.