Past time for Nova Scotians to honour Viola Desmond

Damn. Missed it. Again. I’m not the only one. Which is unfortunate. For everyone.

Last Sunday marked the anniversary of an event that symbolizes—or should—the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in Canada.

On November 8, 1946, a 32-year-old black beautician named Viola Desmond was driving from Halifax to Sydney when her car broke down. After a mechanic in New Glasgow informed her he wouldn’t be able to fix it until the next day, Desmond decided to put in time catching a movie at the nearby Roseland Theatre.

The theatre—like far too many public places at the time—was segregated. Blacks could only sit in the balcony. Desmond found a better seat in the whites-only section and sat down. When she refused to leave, the manager called the police. They physically removed her from the theatre and trucked her off to jail.

She was charged, not with violating the un-posted but nonetheless strictly enforced code of segregation, but with defrauding the federal government. Since downstairs ticket prices were higher than in the balcony, she’d paid one cent less tax than required.

Desmond was convicted and fined $20.

Desmond’s story galvanized the newly-formed Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, which raised funds to appeal her conviction. Although the appeal itself was unsuccessful, the white Halifax lawyer who’d taken on the case—Frederick Bissett—donated his fees back to the organization so it could continue the fight against state-sanctioned segregation.

Ironically, Desmond’s brave contribution to the beginning of the civil rights movement—Rosa Parks’ far more famous refusal to get off a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, wouldn’t happen for another nine years—is barely even acknowledged in her home province.

Nova Scotia’s Human Rights Commission web page, for example, features a link to the story of Anne Frank’s diary but nothing about Desmond. A search for her name on the Black Cultural Centre website draws a blank—even on pages devoted to “Our Heroes.” The province’s Department of Education only finally approved last spring a black history textbook in which Desmond is at least mentioned.

Compare that with Toronto’s Ryerson University. Last year, it made “Viola Desmond Day” the “highlight” of its Black History Month events.

It’s long past time we in Nova Scotia officially recognized Viola Desmond’s important contribution to our history. So that we don’t forget. To Remember. Next year.

  1. Hello Stephen: I returned to your November 2009 article called

    Step by step, things are coming around for Viola.

    I’m sure you know I published SISTER TO COURAGE by Wanda Robson. Here’s a bit more information:

    On Monday, Nov 8, Cape Breton University will formally announce the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice. On Nov 27, Wanda will be in Halifax, keynote speaker at annual Kwanza event sponsored by the Council on African Canadian Education. In March Wanda speaks at Ryerson on Viola Desmond Day.

    On thing that is NOT happening in the declaration of a Viola Desmond Day in Nova Scotia. Percy Paris was about to make it Nov 8–so obvious–when a relative suggested it should be international human rights day instead. Paris backed off–and that was the end of it.

    I have written to him twice. No response. I wonder whether you wanted to take it up in an article–MISSED IT YET AGAIN.

    The province did very well with the apology. And the Royal Free Pardon. And on Nov 8 they plan to unveil a portrait of Viola. But no Day–not yet.

    She made the day important. All we have to do is honour it. Andhappily I don’t have to convince you.

    Let me know if you need more, a photo of Viola etc

    Good wishes,

    Ronald Caplan
    Breton Books


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