Being able to relate to the racial prejudice Canadian heroine Viola Desmond faced before making a stand made fashion professor, Paulette Kelly, more appreciative of the honour she received last week at Ryerson University’s fifth annual awards ceremony to commemorate Desmond’s legacy.
While attending high school and college in the United States, Kelly was subjected to racial intolerance from classmates, teachers and administrators.
“In those days, there were no policies to prevent those unpleasant situations,” said Kelly, who has been teaching at Ryerson since 1975. “When I came to this university, there were no departments of discrimination and harassment prevention services, no office of equity, diversity or inclusion and no Black History Awareness Committee. Things have changed and today I am happy to see individuals coming together in this university with the sole purpose of ensuring that all people in our community are included and treated with respect.”
As part of the Viola Desmond Day event, Ryerson celebrates the extraordinary achievements of Black women with awards named after courageous African-Canadian trailblazers.
Kelly, who holds an associate degree in apparel design and related art from the Fashion Institute of Technology, a Bachelor’s degree in Vocational & Industrial Education and a Master’s in Clothing & Textile, was the recipient of the Harriet Tubman Faculty Award.
Five years ago, Kelly led a team of Ryerson students to Ghana to design and produce uniforms for kindergarten students in the West African country. She has also written a paper on clothing needs for people living with multiple sclerosis and similar physical challenges.
A former Kiwanis Club Sunshine Toronto president and current Ontario Black History Society board member, Kelly beat out Immigration & Settlement Studies professor, Dr. Hyacinth Simpson and School of Early Childhood Studies lecturer, Gloria Roberts-Fiati, for the award.
Tanya Fermin-Poppleton, Ryerson’s Security and Emergency services operations manager, was the recipient of the Rose Fortune Award. A Black Loyalist, Fortune was North America’s first Black police officer after her self-appointment in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia in the late 1700s.
The only Black and one of just three self-defense instructor trainers in Canada in the Rape Aggression Defense System designed specifically for women, Fermin-Poppleton secured the Staff Member Award ahead of International Student Services staff member, Keitha Prospere and Northern Business Creators founder, Kari Davis, who graduated from Ryerson with a Commerce & Marketing degree and a Master of Business Administration.
Shauna Brown won the Mary Anne Chambers student award ahead of Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto vice-president, Neda Abbas and fourth-year radio & television arts student and Ryerson’s digital media zone blogger, Dominique Bennett.
“I am so honoured to be standing here receiving an award celebrating Viola Desmond who was a role model, a hero and an inspiration,” said Brown, who is pursuing a criminal justice degree and has a passion for fashion and cosmetology.
Jarvis Collegiate Institute honour roll student and spoken word artist, Rihab Ali, beat out Earl Haig Secondary School student, Misha Ursal, for the High School Student Award that honours Desmond who, in 1946, refused to sit in New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre balcony section designated for Blacks. Instead, she sat on the ground floor reserved for White patrons.
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 costs.
Actor, poet and playwright, Walter Borden, a relative of Desmond who was born and raised in New Glasgow, said the theatre’s balcony was commonly referred to as “n….. heaven” when he was a patron.
“That was the environment that Viola and I grew up in,” said Borden, who was four years old when Desmond was turfed from the cinema. “In Pictou which is about 13 miles from New Glasgow, there was a law that said Blacks were not allowed to be found outside after sunset in the town. That law is still on the books.”
When efforts to overturn the conviction at higher levels of court failed, the Halifax beauty shop owner closed the business, moved to Montréal and enrolled in business college. She eventually settled in New York where she died in 1965 at age 50.
In April 2010, the Nova Scotia government officially apologized and pardoned Desmond and Canada Post paid tribute to the national heroine by unveiling a stamp in her name in January 2012.
The Desmond Studio of Beauty Culture’s owner made her symbolic stand nine years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a White passenger in Montgomery, Alabama.
Ryerson’s president and vice-chancellor, Dr. Sheldon Levy, acknowledged the Black History Awareness Committee for organizing the event.
“This is a special event for the university,” said Dr. Levy. “Ryerson is known for many things, but the thing that makes us most proud is that we are an inclusive community that welcomes everyone and this event more than anyone was the beginning of that celebration. Ryerson is now looked upon as a leader in areas that are about an inclusive community and one that is fair and just.
“There is nothing that is more important to our community than days and events like this that help us remember, that help us do better and that help us recognize the responsibility that we do have not only to our community, but beyond it.”
The university’s first assistant vice-president/vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion, Dr. Denise O’Neil Green, said the event is a celebration of a woman who possessed strength of character, enabling her to lead a population of people out of segregation just by a simple act of refusing to give up her seat.
In her welcoming remarks, vice-president of administration and finance, Julia Hanigsberg, said celebrating women in leadership and awarding women in the community for their extraordinary achievements in the name of exceptional women who have preceded them are inspirational feats that the university is proud of.
“I am a very firm believer that leaders must mirror the diversity of an entire population,” said Hanigsberg. “Diversity among our leaders is important, not only because we all need role models but because we need people who can help us as we find our paths in life. Celebrating women who are able to survive and thrive in the midst of immense challenges is critically important because it makes the journeys of those who follow that much easier.”