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Viola Desmond is not Canada’s Rosa Parks

Posted on Sunday, April 18th, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Author: Renee Martin

Rosa Parks became an international name when she refused to give her seat to a White person on the bus. Her refusal to move sparked the Montgomery Bus boycott, which ignited the 1960’s African-American civil rights movement. Many years before Mrs. Parks courageous action, a 30 year old African Canadian woman would take a similar stance against segregation but her name is not as well known either globally or in her country of origin – Canada.

On November 8th 1946 Ms. Viola Desmond decided to go and see a movie while she was waiting for her car to be repaired. She requested floor seats and paid for the ticket. As she sat watching the movie she was approached and asked to move, but claiming an inability to see from the balcony she refused.

Her refusal would not be accepted and she was subsequently dragged out the theatre by two men who injured her knee in the process. She was arrested and was forced to spend the night incarcerated on the male cell block. Such was her dignity that she sat upright throughout the terrible ordeal.

During her trial she was not told that she could have legal counsel, or cross examine the witnesses testifying against her. The fact that she was unfamiliar with the legal segregation that the cinema utilized and that the sign indicating the seating standards by race was obscured was not taken into consideration. She was subsequently found guilty of tax evasion because though she asked for a floor seat the segregated seating meant that she had actually purchased a ticket for the balcony where Blacks were forced to sit.

By not sitting in the supposedly appropriate place, she had avoided paying exactly one cent in taxes. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and was ordered to pay a total of 26 dollars in fines, with 6 of those dollars to be given to the manager of the theatre who had damaged her knee when he roughly removed her from her seat.

Not content with the verdict, with the support of NSACCP (The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), Ms. Desmond would fight her way to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. Despite the fact that this was clearly a miscarriage of justice based solely in the theatre’s racist policy, the conviction was upheld.

Frederick Bissett, Ms.Desmonds White lawyer, donated his fees back to the NSACCP which then used the funds to fight segregation in Nova Scotia. In 1954, (well before Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat) segregation was struck down in Nova Scotia thanks in large part to the struggle of Ms. Desmond.

At the end of the supreme court battle, Ms.Desmond’s marriage failed because it could not withstand the strain of the trial and publicity it resulted in. She was also forced to give up her dream of owning a chain of beauty salons that catered to Black women. Ms. Desmond moved to Montreal to attend Business school and, upon completion of her degree, to New York to start her business as an agent. Ms. Desmond died at the age of 50, shortly after she arrived in New York City.

On Wednesday April 14th, 64 years after she was dragged out of Roseland Theatre, Ms Desmond was pardoned by Nova Scotia Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis. This may seem like a happy ending because the government has finally acknowledged a miscarriage of justice, but the pardon was granted against the express wishes of Ms. Desmond’s family. According to The National Post, Sharon Oliver, Ms. Desmond’s niece, and Ms. Desmond’s three sisters, were all angered by the decision:

“She would have laughed and said, “Pardon me for what? I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Sharon Oliver.

A pardon removes the offense from the record as though it never happened, but each succeeding generation of Canadians should be aware of the struggle that Ms. Desmond engaged in. It is further problematic that, once again, the Canadian government is not listening to the wishes of Blacks and is instead rushing forward in a mistaken attempt to prove how much things have changed. It is not up to the oppressor to decide how to make amends, the aggrieved party should have the right set the terms for reconciliation. The fact that government proceeded with this action against the express wishes of the family does not signal change, but a determined effort to silence Blacks.

Even the fact that Ms. Desmond is most commonly referred to as Canada’s Rosa Parks is highly offensive. Ms. Desmond fought her battle before the world had even heard of Rosa Parks and she is a person in her own right. The continual referral to Parks erases Desmonds identity and makes her a secondary figure. If we truly wish to honour Viola’s struggle, we should own her legacy completely, without trying to make it appear as though the Civil Rights struggle was strictly an American phenomenon.

Canadians have always been resistant to acknowledging that though we are a multi-racial society, racism is a part of our culture. From Africville to Viola Desmond, Blacks have had to fight to be acknowledged as citizens and as people worthy of basic human rights. If we truly want to honour Ms. Desmond, we should listen to the opinion of her surviving family members and not run roughshod over their concerns.

If nothing else Viola taught us that, “If you allow people to dictate what you can and can’t do, then you will never reach your dreams.” The government may choose to memorialize Ms. Desmond by erasing her spurious conviction, but Black Canadians can use this as a lightening rod to help sustain the continuing struggle for equal rights.

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  1. African Canadians should be using Ms. Desmond’s story as a jumping off point for getting African Canadian history taught in their schools.

    At the same time, until that happens, African Canadian parents need to be teaching their history to their kids until they get to the point that they can recite it in their sleep.

  2. Thank you for writing this. As a resident of Halifax, I’d been following the MSM stories about Viola Desmond, who I didn’t know much about previously. None of the articles mentioned her family’s opposition to the pardon.

  3. Thank you for putting into words what was making me so uncomfortable. I heard Desmond’s family on CBC talking about how they felt, and a lawyer explained that what they were feeling was wrong (well, inaccurate) because the pardon means they were never guilty, so it’s not pardoning them for something they’re actually guilty of. But that’s so not the point!

    And thank you for articulating why calling her Rosa Parks doesn’t work. The Globe editorial referring to her as such, really bugged me, but I couldn’t say why.

  4. If they wish to honour this woman, they would remember her.

    She needs remembering and her message and story told. Remembered for herself,. for her story – not as part of someone else’s – but as a brave and strong woman who did this herself

  5. Excellent post. When I read about the pardon in the paper it seemed like too much was being left out. Thank you for putting it out there.

  6. Rosa Parks did a whole lot more than just sit on a bus, but I appreciate you telling Viola Desmond’s story.
    Nice article.

  7. I first read about Viola Desmond in 1981 when I bought the book The Freedom Seekers by Daniel G. Hill. That is still my go-to book about African Canadian history even though I now have many other books written about the history of African Canadians. In 1981 I had only recently immigrated to Canada and as an African woman born in South America I was very interested in the history of Africans in Canada; especially since the first Canadian I met when I was a young child was African Canadian from Nova Scotia.

    Much of the history of African Canadians is hidden, not taught in the schools and given short shrift even in February (African Heritage/Black History Month.) Canadians are very happy to talk about African American history (Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks) but pretend that there is no corresponding history of Africans in Canada. Canadians who can name Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman as enslaved Africans in America who fought for their freedom; have never heard of Marie Joseph Angelique, Chloe Cooley or Peggy Pompadour who were all enslaved Africans who in one way or another struggled against their enslavement in Canada.

  8. As a Canadian now living in Maryland, I just discovered who Viola Desmond was by seeing Canada Post’s new stamps issued for Black History Month.
    Renee Martin is right in saying that Ms. Desmond is not “Canada’s Rosa Parks.”
    Thank you for educating us and shedding light on why her family objested to the posthumous pardon.
    Viola Desmond’s story is essential knowledge in the history of Nova Scotia and Canada.

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