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Next year, let's also remember Viola Desmond

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

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.

Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of Kings College, is the author of eight books.

 
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