'Canada's Rosa Parks,' Viola Desmond, posthumously pardoned

Undated archival handout photo of Viola Desmond

Effective Publishing Ltd.

Undated archival handout photo of Viola Desmond

Kathryn Blaze Carlson, National Post · Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2010

Even when she was imprisoned, Viola Desmond was coiffed and groomed, with white gloves upon her petite hands and an upright posture despite the circumstance.

On Nov. 8, 1946, Ms. Desmond, a black beautician and businesswoman, was jailed after being dragged from a Nova Scotia theatre by two white men because she refused to move from the main floor to the balcony, the designated area for blacks.

For her indignation, Ms. Desmond -- today an icon of this country’s civil rights movement and known as Canada’s Rosa Parks -- was convicted of an obscure tax offence by a white judge in New Glasgow.

Today, Ms. Desmond, who passed away in 1965 in New York, will be pardoned by Nova Scotia Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis at a ceremony in Halifax, and Canada will be reminded of its egregious errors.

The free pardon recognizes Ms. Desmond’s innocence at the Roseland Theatre that night, and it recognizes the error of the four white Supreme Court judges who turned down her appeal.

But although the pardon is hailed as an overdue gesture, some members of Ms. Desmond’s family say if she were alive today, the former teacher and entrepreneur would want nothing of the sort.

“She would have laughed and said, ‘Pardon me for what? I didn’t do anything wrong,’” said Sharon Oliver, Ms. Desmond’s niece, who says her own elderly mother and two of Ms. Desmond’s other sisters are angered by the pardon.

A fourth sister who lives in Halifax, Wanda Robson, supports the pardon and has worked in recent years to educate schoolchildren about Ms. Desmond’s unwitting role as a civil rights pioneer.

Indeed, most Canadians know little, if anything, about the woman.

“Every year I ask my graduate students, ‘Who has heard of Viola Desmond?’ And only a sprinkling of hands go up,” said Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and author of Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada. “Everybody knows about Rosa Parks and the history of racism in the United States, but it seems that nobody wants to own up to the racist history here in Canada.”

Ms. Backhouse, who poured through court documents and interviewed some of Ms. Desmond’s beauty-parlour clients for her book, said she hopes that today’s event will usher a remembrance not only of Ms. Desmond, but also of segregation in this country.

“Canadians like to pretend that we are a raceless country, as if it’s impolite to mention race or racism,” Ms. Backhouse said, pointing to Nova Scotia’s Africville, the White Women’s Labour Law, and the Chinese head tax as examples of Canada’s marred history. “And yet we have such a legacy of racism that runs very, very deep.”

It was into this climate of segregation that Ms. Desmond was born, on July 6, 1914. She grew up at 4 Prince William Street in Halifax, with her siblings Gordon, John, Alan, Emily, Eugenie, Helen, Constance, Olive, and Wanda.

Among her sisters, she was known as the ‘groomer.’ But after journeying to Montreal to attend the Field Beauty Culture School -- one of the few in Canada that accepted black students -- and then launching her own product line and opening a beauty school, she was also known as the entrepreneur.

“Aunt Vi never saw herself as a civil rights activist, she saw herself as a businesswoman,” Ms. Oliver said. “She was trying to prove that black women could be attractive and successful too.”

Ms. Oliver grew up in Montreal and saw her aunt often, sharing her room when Ms. Desmond visited or passed through on business, the latter considered an anomaly for a married black woman at the time.

Ms. Oliver said Ms. Desmond never spoke of the Roseland Theatre, and said she remembers just one conversation that seemed rooted in her aunt’s iconic place in history.

“She showed up one time with brilliantly blonde hair, and I told her that coloured people can’t have blonde hair,” Ms. Oliver said. “Then she said, ‘If you allow people to dictate what you can and can’t do, then you will never reach your dreams.’”

It was this independence that caught the attention of Ms. Desmond’s late husband, Jack, a construction worker turned barber-shop owner. He courted Ms. Desmond before she left for beauty school in Montreal and then, after a few visits, he married her there.

After a stint at a New York beauty school, Ms. Desmond returned to Halifax and launched ‘Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture’ next to ‘Jack’s Barber Shop.’

“Her beauty clients saw her as a beacon of hope in the black community,” Ms. Backhouse said. “She truly believed that if a black person worked hard enough, they could overcome the barriers. Sadly, I think the night in the Rosedale Theatre showed her that it didn’t matter that she was a respectable entrepreneur.”

After losing her Supreme Court appeal -- her white lawyer was paid for by the local black community, though the lawyer remitted his pay to the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People -- Ms. Desmond “lost heart,” Ms. Backhouse said.

“She, like many people who challenge race discrimination, paid an enormous personal price,” Ms. Backhouse said, adding that she supports the swelling movement to declare Nov. 8 as Viola Desmond Day. “I think it’s only right that we remind Canadians not only about who she was, but why her actions were even necessary.”

National Post

With files from Richard Foot, Canwest News Service

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