Remembering Viola: Province pardons Desmond

Remembering Viola: Province pardons Desmond

Wanda Robson, left, recalls how her sister Viola Desmond, right, would have been so proud to learn of the province’s free pardon granted to her in 2010. (CONTRIBUTED)

Wanda Robson, left, recalls how her sister Viola Desmond, right, would have been so proud to learn of the province’s free pardon granted to her in 2010. (CONTRIBUTED)

VISIONARY, entrepreneur, pioneer and Canadian hero.

Those words were used at Province House on Thursday to describe the late Viola Desmond as the Nova Scotia government officially apologized and pardoned her.

More than 60 years ago, Desmond, a black Halifax beautician, was jailed and fined for sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre.

“On behalf of the Nova Scotia government, I sincerely apologize to Mrs. Viola Desmond’s family and to all African-Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination she was subjected to by the justice system in November 1946,” Premier Darrell Dexter told a packed Red Chamber.

“The arrest, detainment and conviction of Viola Desmond is an example in our history where the law was used to perpetuate racism and racial segregation – this is contrary to the values of Canadian society.”

Unbeknownst to her at the time, Desmond took a courageous step on Nov. 8, 1946, that would later help to eliminate segregation in Nova Scotia.

That day, a New Glasgow police officer dragged the successful businesswoman out of the Roseland Theatre for refusing to give up her seat in the downstairs section, which was reserved for white people. For that, Desmond was jailed for 12 hours. Under theatre policy, blacks were only permitted to sit upstairs.

Desmond, 32 at the time, had gone to the theatre to pass time while her car was being repaired.

In court the next morning, she was convicted of defrauding the provincial government of a penny – the difference in tax on a 40-cent ticket to sit downstairs versus a 30-cent ticket for upstairs.

During her trial, Desmond testified that she had offered to pay the extra 10 cents for the downstairs ticket but theatre staff would not accept it. The provincial tax included in the price was three cents on the 40-cent tickets and two cents on the 30-cent tickets.

Desmond paid a $20 fine, plus $6 for the theatre’s court costs.

On Thursday, Dexter said the government of today recognizes that the behaviour for which Desmond was arrested was an act of courage, not a crime.

“On behalf of the Province of Nova Scotia, I am sorry,” the premier said.

Desmond died in 1965 at age 50.

On Thursday, Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis granted her a free pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, the first time in Canada that such a pardon has been granted posthumously.

“Viola is the most recent addition to a series of important Canadian historical figures to receive much-deserved recognition for past injustice,” Francis said.

“History is filled with tales of injustice. It is only on rare occasions – with the clarity of hindsight and benefit of careful thought and measured reason – that a society comes together to undo the wrongs of the past.

“But make no mistake. It is impossible that with the stroke of a pen, and the granting of a free pardon, history is forgotten and the proverbial slate is wiped clean.”

Instead, Francis said, this moment in the story of Viola Desmond will ensure that her legacy lives on in newspapers, legal journals, human rights research, political science debates and race relations studies.

Unlike a federal pardon, the rarely used free pardon is based on a person’s innocence and recognizes a wrongful conviction, the province said.

Desmond’s official certificate of pardon will hang in the legislature.

In a series of stories beginning in March, The Chronicle Herald recounted Desmond’s 1946 arrest and conviction. After the first story appeared on March 6, the Dexter government said it would begin the process of pardoning her.

“There can be no doubt that a grievous error was made,” Dexter said. “The injustice committed against Mrs. Desmond is a part of Nova Scotia’s history, a history that is taught in Nova Scotia’s schools, a history that needs to be kept alive and in our hearts. Nova Scotians cannot and should not forget.”

Desmond’s younger sister, Wanda Robson, said Nova Scotians must learn from her sister’s history-making moment.

“What happened to my sister is part of our history and needs to remain intact,” Robson said. “We must learn from our history so we do not repeat it. If my parents were here today, it would warm their hearts to see Viola recognized as a true Canadian hero.

“I’m numb. I really did not believe all this would come to a political thing, a government thing. She would be so happy, and not only for her personal achievement but for leaving something behind for the young people.”

Last year, Robson, 83, wrote to New Glasgow Mayor Barrie MacMillan asking the town to do something to honour her sister.

MacMillan announced Thursday that the town will unveil a lasting tribute to Desmond during the Black Gala Homecoming in August. The tribute will honour Desmond’s courage, leadership and dignity.

“She is a pioneer in human rights, and we are proud to recognize the contribution she has made in our province and our country,” MacMillan said.

“A terrible wrong occurred and we are here today, inspired by and to pay tribute to, the strength and integrity of Viola Desmond.”