To the Editor:
As February 15 approaches, I am reminded that Viola Desmond did not get the honour of Viola Desmond Day as promised for Nova Scotia’s first Heritage Day 2015.
That day came and went and as many will remember the weather was pretty rough—very cold in Halifax with huge chunks of ice blocking the sidewalks and roads. The plows had just about given up and the major ceremony planned for the North End Library was canceled. The day came and went. And according to the rules for Heritage Day, that was the last day for Viola Desmond. Honorees for the next seven years had been selected. For example, on Feb 15, 2016—in the heart of Black Heritage/History Month—we in Nova Scotia are encouraged to celebrate Joseph Howe.
That first Heritage Day in 2015 was dedicated to Viola Desmond because, as many people know, Viola is the woman who refused to give up her seat in the “whites only” section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow. That was November 8, 1946. Viola was a black businesswoman on her way to Sydney to deliver her line of beauty products, when her car broke down. She had to stay the night in New Glasgow, waiting for car parts, and she decided to take in a movie. She happened to sit in what the theatre management had designated as the “whites only” section.
When she was told that black people had to sit in the balcony she refused to give up her seat, and she ended up being carried out of the theatre struggling with a policeman and the manager. Jailed for the night, she was tried next morning without a lawyer and found guilty of cheating the Nova Scotia government out of one penny — that’s correct, one cent — the difference in amusement tax between the main floor ticket and the balcony.
Fined $20 and costs, Viola later appealed the judgment unsuccessfully, losing on a technicality. But one judge went on record to say that the case was never about the amusement tax and always about race.
It’s meaty stuff in Canada’s story of social justice.
Sixty-five years later, Premier Darrell Dexter apologized on behalf of Nova Scotia, and then Lt-Gov. Mayann Francis read out Queen Elizabeth’s Grant of Free Pardon, recognizing that Viola Desmond had committed no crime. The Town of New Glasgow held two days of recognition, unveiling a painting of Viola Desmond that now has a permanent place in Government House in Halifax. There have been many honours, school programs and scholarships established in her name. Canada Post released a Viola Desmond postage stamp. Many people campaigned for a permanent Viola Desmond Day in Nova Scotia. Instead, the provincial government declared the third Monday in February each year as Heritage Day, to honour a different person or event each year into the future. The first Heritage Day in 2015 was “Viola Desmond Day.” The weather, as I said above, pretty much blocked that opportunity to remember Viola’s courage and Nova Scotia’s ongoing struggle for racial equality.
Here are the subjects of Nova Scotia’s Heritage Day for the next seven years: 2016 is Joseph Howe; 2017 is Mi’kmaq Heritage; 2018 is Mona Louise Parsons; 2019 is Maud Lewis; 2020 is Africville; 2021 is Edward Francis Arab; 2022 is Grand Pré National Historic Site.
These are all worthy subjects. Whether they should be the focus in the middle of Black Heritage Month is debatable. My fundamental point is that Viola Desmond’s day has come and it has gone—and with it, the lasting messages that should not be forgotten.
Viola Desmond deserves better.
I want to suggest, at the very least, that this year we move the provincial calendar ahead by one year—and hope for weather that will permit gatherings wherein Viola Desmond can be formally celebrated and discussed as was planned for February 2015. It seems a reasonable accommodation, and it gives us an opportunity to reconsider the decision that denies Viola Desmond an annual day of her own. Perhaps the debate will be taken up again, and either our Nova Scotia Heritage Day can be declared a permanent Viola Desmond Day, or another day can be declared as Viola Desmond Day in Nova Scotia.
Viola Desmond Day does not have to be another statutory holiday, a day off work with the schools closed. That would be costly for businesses and it will not forward the educational value of a Viola Desmond Day. Instead, I recommend that Viola Desmond Day should be a day of focus – a day of teaching about Viola as a businessperson, a defender of her family, and a brave social activist. It should be a day of deliberately measuring how far we all have come along the road toward social justice, while remembering Viola Desmond’s achievement for us all.
Ronald Caplan, C.M.