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Pioneer nurse Clotilda Douglas-Yakimchuk dies at 89

This obituary is one in a series on people who died in the coronavirus pandemic. Learn more about the others here.

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 she did not even receive the courtesy of a response.

Eventually she was admitted to the Nova Scotia Hospital School of Nursing, and in 1954 she became her first black graduate. She continued to work as a nurse for the next half century, mainly in psychiatry. She was also a community activist dedicated to social justice, the education of black youth, and the well-being of the elderly.

Mrs. Douglas-Yakimchuk died on April 15 in a hospital in the capital Halifax. She was 89 years old. She had tested positive for Covid-19 just a week before she died of it, her daughter Leslie Douglas-Shaw said.

In addition to her nursing work, Ms. Douglas-Yakimchuk was the founding president of the Black Community Development Organization, which helped provide housing for low-income people in Nova Scotia. She produced a radio show showcasing 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 set up a nursing program.

Along the way, she encountered racial barriers. White patients sometimes refused her care, although in one case the patient later apologized and the two became friends.

In another instance, she won the election as president of the Registered Nurses Association of Nova Scotia, now called the College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia, which represents over 9,000 people in this profession. She was shocked, her daughter said, when the runner-up, a white woman, asked her to step down so that she, the white woman, could become president instead.

“The white woman said to mom, ‘It’s not your time,’ said Ms. Douglas-Shaw. “Based on her experience as a black woman in a race-conscious society, my mother felt it was due to her race.”

Ms Douglas-Yakimchuk refused to step down, and in 1988 she became the first black president – and to this day only – of the organization.

Clotilda Adessa Coward was born January 11, 1932 in the Whitney Pier neighborhood of Sydney, Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Cape Breton Island. His family had moved there because his father, Arthur Reginald Coward, who grew up in Barbados, responded to an advertisement in 1914 to work at a local steel mill. He left the factory when he felt discriminated against and started charcoal and alcohol 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 there as director of a psychiatric hospital.

They returned to Nova Scotia in 1966, seeing more work opportunities, and she resumed her job as a nurse. Mr. Douglas died in 1975. When Ms. Douglas-Yakimchuk retired in 1994, she was Director of Education Services at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney and remained involved in social justice projects. She married Dan Yakimchuk, a community activist, in 1984. He died in 2011.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. 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.

Ms. Douglas-Yakimchuk has received numerous honors, including being named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2003 and a Member of the Order of Nova Scotia in 2018.

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