‘Pardon me for what?’

Kathryn Blaze Carlson, National Post; With Files From Richard Foot, Canwest News Service
Thursday, Apr. 15, 2010

Known as Canada’s Rosa Parks, Viola Desmond stood up against racism in the 1940s and went to jail for it.

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 Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis at a ceremony in Halifax, and Canada will be reminded of its egregious errors.

The 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 pored through court documents and interviewedsomeofMs. 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 St. 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.

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