Despite Desmond apology racism still a threat


Within the same week that the family of late anti-segregation activist Viola Desmond received an apology and pardon from the Government of Nova Scotia in recognition of her human rights stand six decades ago, someone set fire to the car owned by an inter-racial couple who had already been the target of a hate crime.

Shayne Howe, the only Black man in Poplar Grove, located some 50 kilometers northwest of Halifax, and his partner Michelle Lyon, who is White, have been living in fear since the earlier incident on Feb. 21 when in the pre-dawn hours they found a cross with a noose tied to it burning on their front lawn. Howe and Lyon, who have five children, also report that they heard racial taunts at that time.

Curiously, the two young men arrested and charged with public incitement of hatred, criminal harassment, uttering threats and mischief are said to be cousins of Lyon. The younger of the brothers, Justin Rehberg, 19, has pleaded not guilty. Nathan Rehberg, 20, has not yet entered a plea.

With good reason, Nova Scotia has been labeled by some as ‘the Mississippi of the North’. On Nov. 8, 1946, a then 32-year-old beautician, Viola Desmond, experiencing car trouble in New Glasgow while on her way from Halifax to Sydney, went to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre while waiting for her car to be repaired. Unbeknown to her, the theatre had a segregated seating policy. Black people were allowed only balcony seating, but Desmond sat in the White-only section. Refusing to move once she was informed, she was dragged from the theatre by a police officer and the theatre manager.

For her ‘crime’ she spent a night in jail and was convicted of tax evasion. Court records show that she was charged for not paying the full price for the seating she occupied – apparently, Whites paid a higher price for premium seating – and she was sentenced to 30 days in jail and given a $20 fine.

But Desmond fought the charge with the help of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. She lost the first appeal but later won on a technicality. American Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus occurred nine years later, on Dec. 1, 1955.

It remains to be seen how the case against the Rehberg brothers will end. After the incident in late February, the small town rallied to support the Howe-Lyon family, but since the latest incident the couple is now considering moving away from the area.

When many think of racism, this kind of stereotypical cross-burning act of hatred is what they recognize. But that is at the militant end of the spectrum. This kind of exaggerated expression is not unlike the notion of a ‘real’ drunk – a scruffy man sitting on a bench drinking cheap alcohol out of a paper bag – when in fact far more real drunks live in nice homes and have good jobs while making a mess of their lives.

In much the same way, most who are living within the more mundane aspects of racism don’t see themselves as associated to the extremist cross burner, and so reject that they fit somewhere along the spectrum. But, racism, like other social diseases, pervades our society.

So when the National Post ran a feature a few weekends ago in which one of its editors detailed his experience of attending an anti-racism program with other White people, apparently facilitated by a White person, the editor’s commentary was at best mocking, and at worst meant to discredit the attempts by some Whites to address racism in their midst.

It might have been helpful to credit the group with wanting to address the issue and at least trying. But again, because the exaggerated stereotype of a racist is the yardstick against which many measure themselves, the easy answer is to discredit efforts such as that workshop. For if such efforts can be discredited or made to appear ridiculous then beneficiaries of this system can keep right on going with the same old songs.

A note on TTC town halls…

The second in a series of three town halls hosted by the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union took place last weekend in Scarborough, a rapidly growing and much-underserved area. The audience, mainly members of the public, was a bit rowdier than the first meeting and held a stronger line in calling TTC frontline workers to task for poor customer service.

A front page Toronto Star article detailed customer complaints of “crude, rude TTC staff” in a system “troubled by a culture of indifference and disdain toward customers.”

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