Canada Post honours for John Ware and Viola Desmond


As its contribution to Black History Month, Canada Post will issue two commemorative stamps on February 1 to honour two Canadian heroes, John Ware and Viola Desmond.


This is the fourth year that Canada Post has issued stamps for Black History month. In 2009, former New Democrat Party (NDP) parliamentarian, Jamaica-born Rosemary Brown, the first Black woman to hold political office in Canada (as a member of the British Columbia legislature) and Abraham Doras Shadd, a devoted abolitionist, ‘station master’ and ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad, through which escaped slaves fled the U.S. to safety in Canada,

were featured on stamps. In 2010, William Hall, the first Black and third Canadian to be presented with the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy” to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries and previous British Empire territories, received the honour.


East coast journalist and activist, Carrie Best and baseball great, Fergie Jenkins, were featured last year.

Incidentally, Best worked with Viola Desmond to lobby the Nova Scotia government to repeal its segregation laws, which it did in 1954.

John Ware was a cowboy who helped establish the ranching industry in the part of the prairies that would eventually become Alberta.

Born into slavery in South Carolina, Ware travelled to Texas after the Civil War, where he became an experienced cowhand. In 1882, strong and industrious, Ware drove 3,000 cattle across the border for the North West Cattle company, and then settled in Canada. He lived and worked first in the Calgary area, then established his own ranch in the Foothills in 1890. He would later move the ranch and his family to a new spot near Brooks, Alberta, in 1900.

With his great stature, abilities and sense of adventure, Ware had all the makings of a folk hero. Skilled with the lariat, he pioneered steer-wrestling and won his first competition at the Calgary Summer Fair of 1893, setting a precedent for what would become a highlight of the Calgary Stampede. Ironically, he died in 1905, when his horse tripped and crushed him.

Desmond was arrested in Nova Scotia in 1945 for sitting in the “Whites-only” section of New Glasgow’s Roseland theatre. After being dragged from the theatre, sitting up all night in jail still wearing her white gloves, Desmond was tried without counsel and convicted of defrauding the province of the additional one-cent tax for seats in the Whites-only section, and fined $20. She paid the fine but went on to fight the charge in higher levels of court. Subsequent trials focused on tax-evasion, not that she had been a victim of racism.

All efforts to have the conviction overturned were unsuccessful, and her lawyer eventually returned her fee, which she used to fund the activities of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP).

Last year, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia invoked the Royal Prerogative and granted Desmond a posthumous pardon, the first such to be granted in Canada, and the government of Nova Scotia formally apologized.

“I used a collage of elements in the stamps to give dimension to the stories of both Desmond and Ware,” says Lara Minja of Vancouver’s Lime Design, who designed the three previous issues in the Black History series. “Strong and flattering portraits of each figure provide a central focus, and silhouettes of significant places appear at the bottom. Both stamps are intended to have a historical look and feel, as well as a richness and human warmth.”

With files from Canada’s Stamp Details (Vol. XXI No 1; January to March 2012).

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