Racist Canada and the Woman You Should Know

Everyone remembers Rosa Parks. When asked to get up and move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Parks opted to stay put. She was hauled off and arrested. Her refusal to move started a movement. In 1946, nine years before Parks’ courageous act of civil disobedience, Canada’s Viola Desmond showed similar grit in a similar act that drew attention to a similar culture of injustice.

Born in 1914, Desmond grew up in a middle class Halifax neighbourhood with her nine brothers and sisters. A bright young girl, she excelled at her studies. For a while she taught school but then fulfilled her dream to become a beautician. After training in Montreal, New York and Atlantic City she returned home to form the Desmond School of Beauty Culture for Girls. Desmond was talented at her craft and a clever entrepreneur who was soon inspiring dozens of young women every year to start their own businesses offering hair styling and other beauty services and  advice.

Image Viola Desmond

On a cool November evening in 1946, Desmond was on her way to a business meeting in Sydney when her car broke down in New Glasgow. After arranging for repairs, she decided to pass the time by taking in a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She purchased a ticket but was stopped from entering the main floor seating area by a huffy, young usher who said that her ticket was for her place – the place for Black people – up in the balcony. Desmond said no. She offered to pay the one cent extra for a main floor seat but the man behind the ticket booth glass refused and told her to get upstairs. Instead, she walked past the startled usher and took a seat in the all-White main floor.

This was not Rosa Parks’ deep American south but Nova Scotia. However, for Desmond that afternoon and for Black Nova Scotians for generations, the difference was only one of geography. Racism had been a part of Canada’s past since the first Black slave arrived with Champlain in 1605. Slave labour was used to build a number of Canadian towns including Halifax. The city’s port was an important link in the Atlantic slave trade. Slave auctions were a common sight. After the American Revolution, thousands of people loyal to the British crown came to Nova Scotia and about 10% were Black slaves or freedman.

By the twentieth century, slavery was long gone but racial discrimination remained. Canada saw race riots and knew racially segregated schools, churches and services as well as race-based immigration policies and hiring and business practices. In Halifax, Black families were kept in specific neighbourhoods and just outside the city the all-Black community of Africville was offered no municipal services. It was with this racist reality in mind that one better understands the courage that Viola Desmond showed when taking her ticket for the Black balcony of the Roseland Theatre and walking defiantly to a White seat.

The movie did not begin and the lights remained on. Soon, a police officer arrived. Desmond explained that she had offered to pay the extra one cent for the main floor seat but the cop did not want to hear it. She was pulled up, dragged out and slammed in jail. Her hip had been injured and her dignity abused. She spent the night sitting upright on her small, hard bed in her cold, tiny cell.

Desmond was taken to court the next morning. She was offered neither a lawyer nor legal advice. The judge informed her that she was being charged with defrauding the provincial government based on her taking a seat that cost one cent more than the ticket she had purchased. He ruled inadmissible that she had offered to purchase a main floor ticket. Desmond was fined $26.

She could have easily paid the fine and put it all behind her; but she decided to fight. A lawyer was contacted and Desmond sued the Roseland Theatre and its manager for having her ejected from the theatre and for the assault, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment that followed. The case went to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court which on a legal technicality ruled against her.

What was quickly lost in court was slowly won in the often higher court of public opinion. The incident and case had garnered headlines. The Nova Scotia National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People used the case to publicize the injustice of racial discrimination and to raise money to fight for change.

In 1954, Nova Scotia’s legislature finally put an end to state-sanctioned segregation. While the laws had changed, however, the racism that had created them in the first place remained as did many of the Jim Crow practices that had been around for generations. However, with the laws gone, progress was at least being made and those who continued discriminatory practices were supported only by their hatred and ignorance.

Viola Desmond paid a significant price for her brave stand. Her husband did not continence her fight and their marriage ended. The pressure on her and her business led to her leaving Halifax and relocating in Montreal. Desmond died in February, 1965. At that point the fight for rights had progressed but was far from over. Africville was still struggling to save itself in a battle it would lose a few years later to small minds and big bulldozers. Discrimination was gone from the law but prejudice remained in far too many hearts.

In 2010, the Nova Scotia government pardoned Viola Desmond. Later that year, Cape Breton University established the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice. In 2012, Canada Post issued a Viola Desmond stamp.

Canada and Canadians have come a long way. It has most often been determined groups and courageous individuals who have forced reluctant leaders to take each tentative step toward a more just society. Our job is to honestly admit our past and atone for our crimes and hateful attitudes while celebrating our progress. There must be reconciliation with truth. There must also be the recognition that national progress begins with individual beliefs and actions. Our personal and collective introspection must also include an offering of thanks to those whose acts of personal courage and conviction shine lights on the dark shadows of injustice. Let us continue to take steps toward becoming the people we deserve to be. Let us thank Viola Desmond.

To explore more about the racism in Canada’s past see Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism.  Available here: http://www.amazon.ca/Last-Steps-Freedom-Evolution-Canadian/dp/1896239404/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1402154251&sr=1-