Sixty-four years after Viola Desmond was jailed for sitting in a whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre, people gathered in Halifax Thursday to officially pardon “Canada’s Rosa Parks” and celebrate her as a hero.
It was the first free pardon in the history of Nova Scotia. In Canada, it’s the first time clemency has been awarded posthumously.
The declaration marks not just that Desmond was innocent, but that the conviction itself was wrong.
“The arrest, detainment and conviction of Viola Desmond is an example in our history where the law was used to perpetuate racism and racial segregation — this is contrary to the values of Canadian society,” said Premier Darrell Dexter.
“On behalf of the province of Nova Scotia, I am sorry.”
On Nov. 8, 1946 Desmond attempted to buy a movie ticket to the main floor of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. Staff refused to sell her one because the lower level was for white people only. African Nova Scotians had to sit in the balcony, where tickets cost one cent less.
She was unknowingly given a balcony ticket and when she went to sit in the main level the theatre manager called the police. Desmond was jailed for the night, tried and convicted for failing to pay an extra cent in tax to the province, and fined $20.
Viola Desmond passed away in the 1960s, but her little sister Wanda Robson, now 83, was at the ceremony in the legislature Red Room Thursday.
In a graceful speech, she had the packed crowd shifting between laughter and applause as she recounted the long movement to have Desmond pardoned.
“It just became my mission,” she explained. “This is what I had to do.”
Robson remembered her sister as a person who did things women at that time just didn’t do. She had a car, she learned to drive, and she had her own business.
“You know what she would say? Mom and dad would be so proud. That’s what she would think,” Robson told reporters.
“She would be so happy. And not only for personal achievement, but for leaving something behind for the young people.”