Why can’t we have Viola Desmond day and…?

As Canada Post prepares issue a new stamp next month to celebrate the life of Viola Desmond, our own government seems about to quietly take a pass on the opportunity to honour the Halifax woman whose personal courage remains a symbolic inspiration in the fight for human rights in Canada.

In 1946—nine years before Rosa Parks’ refusal to get off a Montgomery, Alabama, bus helped trigger the U.S. civil rights movement—Desmond refused to give up her seat in the “whites-only” section of New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre. She was hauled out of the theatre, thrown in jail, charged, convicted and fined $20. She fought her conviction and lost, but the embarrassing publicity helped galvanize the fight against Nova Scotia’s state-sanctioned segregation and led to changes in the law.

Nova Scotians have only recently begun to acknowledge Desmond’s significance—and suffering. Two years ago, Premier Darrell Dexter publicly apologized for the “injustice” she’d suffered and his government issued a rare posthumous pardon.

In 2010, Tory MLA Alfie MacLeod introduced a resolution in the House of Assembly calling on the province to declare Nov. 8—the day of her arrest—Viola Desmond Day.

Some in the black community argued that date was inappropriate; others complained they hadn’t been consulted.

Fair enough.

The Dexter government consulted, but the question it asked— “how to establish a lasting form of recognition that would honour the contributions and experiences of African Nova Scotians”—seemed blandly beside the point of Macleod’s original motion.

No surprise its final report doesn’t even mention Desmond. Or that the idea for the Day now seems dead. “People,” explains a government spokesperson, “have been saying they want something that recognizes the broad scope of African-Nova Scotian accomplishments.”

Is there some reason we can’t have both?

As Desmond’s sister Wanda wrote in a recent letter to the government: “Naming a day after a popular and iconic figure does not lessen the larger ambitions of creating such a day… In fact they give the day an identity and create an entry point into an issue that otherwise may be ignored with a more generic title.”

It’s time we celebrated Viola Desmond Day.

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