Signing on to become Nova Scotia’s first African-Canadian and second female Lieutenant Governor in September 2006 was significant and ground-breaking for Sydney-born Mayann Francis. However, putting pen to paper to finalize the pardon for the late Viola Desmond was the most important and historic document she would sign.
The Nova Scotia government officially apologized and pardoned Desmond at a ceremony last Thursday in the Nova Scotia Legislature.
In 1946, the Halifax beauty shop owner refused to sit in a New Glasgow theatre balcony section designated for Blacks. Instead, she sat on the ground floor reserved for White patrons.
She had gone to the Roseland theatre to pass time while her car was being repaired.
After being forcibly removed from the theatre and arrested, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket and fined $20 and $6 in theatre court costs.
When efforts to overturn the conviction at higher levels of court failed, Desmond closed the business, moved to Montreal and enrolled in a business college. She eventually settled in New York where she died in 1965 at age 51.
On the advice of the Executive Council, Francis exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to grant a free pardon which is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was an error.
This is the first time that a free pardon has been posthumously granted in Canada.
“History is filled with tales of injustice,” Francis noted. “It is only on rare occasions, with the clarity of hindsight and benefit of careful thought and measured reason, that a society comes together to undo the wrongs of the past. But make no mistake, it is impossible that with the stroke of a pen and the granting of a “free pardon”, history is forgotten and the proverbial slate is “wiped clean”.
“On the contrary, this very moment in the Viola Desmond story will ensure her legacy lives on in legal journals, in newspapers, in human rights research, in political science debates and in race relations studies.
“Though much has already been written about Viola, much more is yet to come. As we witness history unfold today in this very chamber, it is incumbent upon each of us to ensure its lessons are not forgotten.”
Nova Scotia Premier Darrel Dexter apologized to Desmond’s family and to all African-Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination the businesswoman was subjected to by the justice system.
“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,” he said. “This is contrary to the values of Canadian society…There can be no doubt that a grievous error was made. The injustice committed to Mrs. Desmond is a part of Nova Scotia’s history, a history that is taught in Nova Scotia’s schools, a history that needs to be kept alive and in our hearts. Nova Scotians cannot and should not forget.”
Wanda Robson, Desmond’s younger sister, said it’s imperative that Nova Scotians learn from her sibling’s injustice.
“What happened to my sister is part of our history and needs to remain intact,” she said. We must learn from our history so we do not repeat it.”
Desmond’s official certificate of pardon will hang in the Nova Scotia Legislature.
Last year, Robson wrote to New Glasgow Mayor Barrie MacMillan, requesting the town honour her sister.
MacMillan disclosed last Thursday that the town will unveil a lasting tribute to Desmond during the Black Gala Homecoming in August.
Desmond is the most recent Nova Scotian historical figure to be recognized this year for past injustices.
Last February, Canada Post unveiled a commemorative stamp to honour William Hall, the first African-Canadian to receive the Victoria Cross for bravery during combat.
The first Canadian sailor and just the third soldier in this country to be awarded the highest military decoration, Hall was presented with the Victoria Cross by the British Royal Navy on October 28, 1859 after he valiantly defended a British garrison in Lucknow, India.
Six weeks ago, Jeremiah Jones — who died in 1950 — was posthumously honoured for his bravery with the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service. He was one of 16 Black Nova Scotians recruited by the 106th Battalion Nova Scotia Rifles in 1915 after the Canadian government announced its non-discriminatory policy. Jones joined the battalion in June 1916 at age 56 and was posted overseas where he volunteered for combat duty and was transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment.
Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly offered an apology two months ago to former Africville residents and their descendants for the demolition of their community nearly five decades ago.