Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of “Canada 150” stories profiling Surrey residents who are celebrated Canadians, to mark the 150th anniversary of our nation’s confederation. As part of this series, Black Press is sponsoring a $20,000 Canadian Prize Giveaway contest. CLICK HERE for all the details.
SURREY — When Eleanor Collins received a Member of the Order of Canada award three year ago, it took some convincing for her to attend the ceremony in Ottawa.
“You know, they were giving me an award for something that happened quite some time ago in my life,” Collins said. “I’m not a singer anymore, I’m not on TV anymore, I’m not this and I’m not that. But my family said to me, ‘Mom, it’s something special, you should go,’ and I did.… In the end I was glad I went, and it was magnificent.”
Collins, a Surrey resident for close to 25 years, received the award in 2014 for her pioneering achievements as a jazz vocalist, and for breaking down barriers and fostering race relations in the mid-20th century.
Now 98 years of age, Collins enjoyed a career as a singer with CBC radio and television, and was the first black artist in North America to host a nationally broadcast TV series.
Today, Canada’s “First Lady of Jazz” lives in the Guildford area, not far from the shopping mall.
“I have a beautiful view of the mountains,” she told the Now in a phone interview on Tuesday. “It’s spectacular.”
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Born in Edmonton, Collins began her singing career at age 16. By 1948, she was ostracized upon moving into one of Burnaby’s predominantly white neighbourhoods.
“She responded by fostering the values of equality and acceptance within her community, and consequently became a civic leader and pioneer in the development of British Columbia’s music industry,” according to a biography of Collins posted on the Order of Canada website (gg.ca).
Collins’ story is told in a new book called “They Desire a Better Country: The Order of Canada in 50 Stories,” written by Lawrence Scanlan for Figure 1, a Vancouver-based publisher.
The Order of Canada — our nation’s highest honour — was launched in 1967. Since then, close to 7,000 Canadians have received the award for service to their communities, the nation and, in some cases, the world, the book publisher notes on its website.
“The Rideau Hall Foundation commissioned this exceptional book with the aim of encouraging Canadians to learn about some of the remarkable individuals who have garnered this prestigious award,” according to Figure 1. “And though this book captures only a handful of their stories, it is a reflection of the inspiration all Order of Canada members bestow upon us.”
Collins said she’s honoured to be among just 50 people profiled in the book.
“I was impressed with that, shall we say,” she said with a laugh. “They had someone check on my background, whether I’m alive or deceased, that was one of the first things. Well, they found out I’m still here, still living, and I’ve had some history.”
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PICTURED: Eleanor Collins with Canadian Governor General David Johnston at her Member of the Order of Canada ceremony in Ottawa in 2014.
Collins was born Elnora Ruth Proctor in Edmonton in 1919, according to a bio for the book: “Her parents, like many others in Oklahoma, had been drawn north by a 1906 newspaper advertisement inviting settlers to come to Canada where they could purchase a quarter section (160 acres) of uncleared land for $10.”
By 1939, she’d moved to Vancouver and, some 25 years later, could be seen and heard on television sets across the country.
“The studio and the TV medium were all new,” Collins recently told a biographer, “but together we managed to create some amazing watershed moments in Canadian television history… I realize now that I experienced a golden age in television.”
During her days in front of a microphone, Collins worked with Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, and was often compared to Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald.
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Despite many international offers, Collins chose to remain in Canada – “not only to give stability to her family but also because the country was a rich source of musicians,” according to the book bio. “Furthermore, she was acutely aware of her parents’ decision to leave turn-of-the-century oppression in the United States for a new life in Canada and she wanted to honour their vision.”
Collins performed live as recently as a year ago, in January 2016, during the memorial service for fellower entertainer Leon Bibb.
“Eleanor feels fortunate to have enough good health and vitality to live independently in her own home,” according to a recent blog post on Vanalogue: “She practices healthy living and carries a positive spirit as part of her daily routine, filling her days with ‘lots of good music, good television, good food, and good family and friends.… Typically you’ll find me preparing to tuck into a very nutritious meal while enjoying a favourite watch like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ or one of the other showcases for today’s young talent. That’s where it is at…ushering in the best of the new generations.’”
CLICK HERE to read the entire Vanalogue post about Collins.