Nova Scotia

One of Nova Scotia's first Black nurses remembered for groundbreaking career

Clotilda Yakimchuk was a trailblazer in both her community of Whitney Pier and in the nursing profession.

Clotilda Yakimchuk died Thursday from COVID-19 at the age of 89

Clotilda Yakimchuk is seen here at Rideau Hall in August 2017, celebrating 50 years of the Order of Canada. She received the Order of Canada in 2003. (Sharon Douglas)

Clotilda Yakimchuk was a woman of many firsts. 

Born and raised in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton, Yakimchuk became the first Black graduate of the Nova Scotia Hospital School of Nursing in 1954. 

She was also the first Black person to be elected president of the Registered Nurses Association of Nova Scotia, now called the Nova Scotia College of Nurses.

The trailblazing nurse died Thursday in Halifax from COVID-19 at the age of 89.

Yakimchuk was remembered by loved ones Thursday not just for her groundbreaking nursing career, but her community activism, as well.

Someone 'who pushed the boundaries'

"I think she will be remembered in many communities in many different ways," said Selah Best-Bourgeois, a family friend and a resident of Whitney Pier.

"I think she will be remembered as somebody who pushed the boundaries and paved the way for many of us to do things that we do today and to be better people."

Best-Bourgeois grew up just a few houses away from Yakimchuk. She described Yakimchuk as the neighbourhood's grandmother who offered guidance to many of the local children.

That guidance helped Best-Bourgeois choose a new path, when she recently became a nurse herself.

"I realized that she had moulded me into a person who wanted to be a caregiver and who wanted to be kind and who wanted to do things to help better other people and our community," she told CBC Radio's Mainstreet Cape Breton.

Remembered for powerful activism

MP Elizabeth May, the former leader of the federal Green Party, said Yakimchuk was campaigning against environmental racism in Whitney Pier when they first met.

May said she also got to know Yakimchuk's late husband, Dan Yakimchuk, during efforts to get the tar ponds cleaned up. The Yakimchuks were "just so powerful" in their community and volunteer work, said May.

Yakimchuk became the first Black graduate of the Nova Scotia Hospital School of Nursing in Dartmouth. (Submitted by Kendrick Douglas)

She said the couple met through activism after Clotilda Yakimchuk organized a Black is Beautiful march through Sydney in the 1970s. Dan was a city councillor at the time.

"It was seen as kind of a radical idea," said May, who became fast friends with Yakimchuk, often taking their activism on the road with the Sierra Club.

May even brought Yakimchuk to Parliament as her family member to witness her first swearing-in as an MP.

"Clotilda was just so extraordinarily gracious, such dignity in the way she would present herself in public," said May.

Strong voice for nurses, even in retirement

The president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union said Yakimchuk left a lasting legacy on nursing and remained a strong voice for the profession in her retirement. 

"She still gave back, she still had concerns and expressed her opinions about the nursing profession even after she retired, which is great to see that kind of leadership," said Janet Hazelton. 

This is a Royal Doulton cup and saucer that Yakimchuk received from a white patient who initially refused to care from Yakimchuk at the Nova Scotia Hospital in 1952. (Kendrick Douglas)

Yakimchuk faced racism at the beginning of her career when there were few Black nurses in Nova Scotia.

In 2018, she told CBC News about a time when she was working at the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth and a patient refused to be treated by her. 

"She didn't want a Black person to be talking and nursing her and looking after her," Yakimchuk recalled in an interview.

"And I found that I was hurt by the confrontation there with her."

Over the course of a few weeks, the patient warmed up to Yakimchuk, eventually apologizing and giving her a Royal Doulton cup and saucer.

Hazelton said Yakimchuk's accomplishments remain an example for what nurses can do. However, she said there is still more work to be done when it comes to prejudice and a lack of diversity in the nursing field. 

"It's important that people see themselves in the hospital community," said Hazelton. "That means seeing nurses that are diverse, seeing nurses that are like them."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.

(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brittany Wentzell

Current Affairs Reporter/Editor

Brittany Wentzell is based in Sydney, N.S., as a reporter for Information Morning Cape Breton. She has covered a wide range of issues including education, forestry and municipal government. Story ideas? Send them to brittany.wentzell@cbc.ca

with files from Mainstreet Cape Breton and Sherri Borden Colley

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