By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“The province has granted an official apology and free pardon to the late Viola Desmond. Mrs. Desmond, of Halifax, was an African Canadian wrongfully jailed and fined in 1946 for sitting in the White peoples’ section of a New Glasgow movie theatre. Mrs. Desmond passed away in 1965. On the advice of the Executive Council, the lieutenant governor has exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to grant a Free Pardon. A free pardon is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was in error. A free pardon is an extraordinary remedy and is considered only in the rarest of circumstances. This is the first time a free pardon has been posthumously granted in Canada.”
Excerpt from “Late Viola Desmond Granted Apology, Free Pardon”, a press release from the office of the Premier of Nova Scotia on April 15, 2010.
Most Canadians know the names of African-American Civil Rights activists like Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Not too many know the name, Viola Desmond.
Viola Davis Desmond was an African Canadian Civil Rights activist. On November 8, 1946, Davis, a 32-year-old businesswoman at the time, was arrested at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia for refusing to move from the “White section”.
While White Canadians pride themselves on being different from their American counterparts and proudly proclaim Canada’s “multiculturalism”, the treatment of African Canadians and other racialized people is very similar to those who live in the United States of America. The White supremacist culture of the U.S. is well documented and displayed but the White supremacist culture of Canada is well hidden. Canadian students can pass through the education system from elementary school through post-secondary without learning about the enslavement of Africans, the internment of Japanese Canadian families, the exclusionary Chinese head tax or the capture and abuse of First Nations children in residential schools.
I was extremely surprised while attending a class at a post-secondary institution where the lecturer, during a discussion of “Components of Racial Discrimination in Immigration”, had no knowledge of the incident involving the racist treatment of the passengers of the Komagata Maru in August 1914. To survive at post-secondary institutions, sometimes racialized students have to “bite their tongues” or risk victimization and unnecessary extra stress.
On November 8, 1946, Desmond was travelling on business from her home in Halifax, Nova Scotia when she experienced car trouble in New Glasgow. After taking her car to a garage and having to wait for it to be repaired she decided to pass the time at the Roseland Theatre. She bought a ticket for the main floor of the theatre as she was unaware of the theatre’s policy that the main floor was a “Whites only” seating area. Desmond did not know that African Canadians were relegated to the balcony at the Roseland Theatre because unlike the blatant White supremacist Jim Crow laws of the U.S. there were no “Whites” and “Coloured” signs.
To this day many White Canadians practice a subtle/polite kind of racism where they can pretend/proclaim that their target was mistaken, that their actions were “taken out of context” or misunderstood. It is not surprising that Toronto’s recently elected Mayor declared that White skin privilege does not exist. It will be interesting to witness how he deals with the racial profiling to which African Canadians and other racialized Torontonians are daily subjected within our fair city.
On November 8, 1946, when Desmond was ordered to vacate her seat and move to the balcony, she refused. She was, after all, a Canadian whose ancestors had lived here for generations. Why should she be treated differently because of her race? She was a successful business owner, a respectable hardworking woman who had paid her hard earned money for a seat on the main floor and she was not going to move. Although she explained that she could not see from the balcony and that she had paid to sit on the main floor, the manager insisted that she move. Following that standoff, the manager left the theatre and returned with police. The slim, 4’11” Desmond was unceremoniously lifted out of her seat by two burly White men and dragged out of the cinema. Desmond suffered hip and knee injuries while being dragged out of the cinema. She was taken to jail, arrested and charged with attempting to defraud the provincial government of a one cent amusement tax. After spending an uncomfortable and terrifying night in jail with no opportunity to contact relatives or even a lawyer, at the trial the following day, Desmond was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine or spend more time in jail. She paid the fine but was determined to fight to clear her name and change the segregationist law.
Desmond was supported in her fight by the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), which raised money for her cause. Desmond also received support from Carrie Best, African Canadian journalist and founder of The Clarion, the first Black-owned and published newspaper. Best and her son, Calbert, were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace for sitting in the “White section” of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. They were convicted and fined with no mention that their crime was sitting in the “White section” of the cinema (that subtle underhanded version of Canadian racism at work).
Best had unsuccessfully filed a civil suit against the management of the Roseland Theatre. She supported Desmond throughout her fight using The Clarion (founded in 1946) to publicize the case. The two African Canadian women (Best and Desmond) working together organized other African Canadians to lobby the Nova Scotia government which finally, eight years after the November 8, 1946 incident, repealed the segregation law of Nova Scotia in 1954, one year before Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama.
It is important to note that on December 1, 1955, when Parks was arrested on the Montgomery city bus, she was sitting in the first set of seats at the back of the bus that were designated for “coloured” people. Over the years there have been erroneous accounts that she was sitting in the “White section” and refused to move. No! Rosa Parks refused to move further back when a White man could not find a seat in the “White section” of the bus and the driver demanded that she and three other African-Americans find seats further back or stand. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat at the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama and the subsequent year-long boycott (December 5, 1955 – December 20, 1956) saw the end of segregation on public transportation in Montgomery. Viola Desmond’s battle to bring an end to segregation in Nova Scotia took a nine-year fight.
At the time that Desmond, Best and other African Canadians in Nova Scotia were fighting to end segregation, African Canadians had recently returned to Canada from fighting in Europe in what was described as the Second World War, which was supposedly fought to bring freedom to the world. Canada at that time was a dominion of the British Empire whose Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made his famous “Finest Hour” speech on June 18, 1940 which included these words: “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.”
Obviously Churchill’s “Christian civilization” did not include White Canadians being “civil” to African Canadians or considering their “Civil Rights” of any importance. After all their “war efforts” African Canadians in 1946 did not have the “freedom” to sit where they wanted in a cinema. The men who came back from Europe after fighting for “freedom” could only expect to get “good” jobs as sleeping car porters.
African Canadian author, Stanley Grizzle, wrote about his experiences as a soldier in the Canadian armed forces and as a porter on the Canadian railroad in his 1998 book, My name’s not George: The story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters : personal reminiscences of Stanley G. Grizzle.
On May 18, 1945, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada signed an agreement that represented the first unionized agreement for African Canadian workers with an employer. The men were porters working with the Canadian Pacific and the Northern Alberta Railway. The unionization meant that for the first time, African Canadian Sleeping Car Porters could bargain for better wages and working conditions and lobby federal and provincial governments to create legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing. It was not until 1964 that African Canadian porters were finally employed in other positions at the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways (CPR and CNR).
Viola Desmond was honoured with a Canadian postage stamp in February 2012 but her status as a Canadian Civil Rights activist is still not widely recognized.