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.