I’m not sure what troubles me more – that so many Canadians are unfamiliar with Viola Desmond, or that so many feel the need to validate her experiences by comparing her to Rosa Parks.
Both of these options are tragedies. Let me tell you why.
Last spring, the Bank of Canada launched the #bankNOTEable campaign, soliciting votes from Canadians on which woman they would like to see on a new bank note. 26, 300 submissions were narrowed down to 461 eligible candidates, which was further whittled down to 5 finalists: E. Pauline Johnson, Elizabeth MacGill, Fanny Rosenfeld, Idola Saint-Jean, and Viola Desmond. Desmond was announced today as the winning selection for the campaign, thus becoming the first Canadian woman to be featured on a regularly circulated bank note, other than the Queen. Starting in 2018, Desmond will replace Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, on the $10 bill.
Upon hearing the news, I started a tweet thread about Viola Desmond and her history. Desmond was a Black businesswoman from Nova Scotia, who was arrested in 1946. While waiting for her car to be repaired, Desmond went to watch a movie at a theatre in New Glasgow, NS. Desmond had specifically requested a main floor ticket, but was given a balcony ticket – unbeknownst to her, the main floor was for Whites only, with Black patrons segregated to the balcony level. When the ticket taker blocked her from entering the main level, she went back to the cashier to clarify her request for a main floor ticket. The cashier refused, saying “I’m sorry, but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.” Desmond took a seat on the main level anyways, once she realized that the only thing barring her was the fact that she was Black. Theatre staff later demanded that she move to the balcony, but she refused – she could see better from the main level, and could afford to pay the difference between the two tickets. The manager of the theatre advised that he had the right to “refuse admission to any objectionable person,” and refused to take her money to pay for the main floor ticket. Because of her resistance, police were called and she was dragged out of her seat, suffering a hip injury in the process. She was put in jail overnight, charged with defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia of the tax difference between the balcony and main tickets (1 cent), and freed in the morning when she paid the $20 fine.
Desmond knew that tax was not the reason for her arrest – it was her Blackness. She was not informed of her rights during her arrest or her trial and was subsequently convicted. After two unsuccessful appeals, legal action on the case slowed to a halt. In 2010, Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon by the Government of Nova Scotia (Canada’s first), and today, the Bank of Canada named her as the new face of our $10 bill.
The fact that so many people have admitted to not knowing who Viola Desmond was says so much about Canada’s past and present. Thinking specifically about Black Canadian history, so much has been ignored, buried, brushed aside in favour of Canada’s European history, or supplemented by African-American history. The lack of knowledge about the history of Black people in this country is a contributing factor to our “othering” – when you aren’t taught that you have a solid foothold in the development of this country, it’s that much easier to feel like the Canadian identity (whatever that looks like) doesn’t belong to you. We didn’t all arrive here thanks to former PM Pierre Trudeau – Black people have existed and contributed to this land for generations, and our stories deserve to be told and learned about by all Canadians.
Another example of this erasure was made clear yesterday, when CBC News shared a story of backlash against an incident of blackface in Chatham, Ontario. A grocery store in Chatham held an event featuring Dutch holiday staples Sinterklaas and his sidekick Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a character displayed in blackface. The store manager addressed the backlash with the following: “It isn’t intended to be racist, it isn’t intended to offend anybody,” he said. “If we offended anybody, we apologize, but it wasn’t intended to offend anyone.”
Any time a “but” is placed in an attempt at an apology, just know that the person doesn’t really feel apologetic. But I digress.
Knowing that this happened in Chatham, which was called the Black Mecca in the 1800s due to its place as a prosperous town for Black people in all industries, makes it all the more egregious. Black people contributed to the Chatham we see today, yet that history still plays second fiddle to Dutch tradition. That hierarchy is explicit when it’s gasp-worthy that blackface could be offensive, especially in a Canadian town with such important Black history. We all need to know better. That’s how you do better.
Knowing better to do better is crucial when it comes to the connections between Viola Desmond and Rosa Parks. Viola Desmond is not “Canada’s Rosa Parks,” yet this need to lean on African-American history to validate Black Canadian history is the only thing that helps some people to see us and our experiences here. Both women’s stories centre around racial discrimination and a sense of resistance, and that’s pretty much where similarities end. To equate the two is ahistorical and reductive to both women’s experiences and impact – but most people won’t readily know that. For one, Viola was arrested 9 years before Rosa. Additionally, Rosa was part of extensive activist work long before she decided to stay in her seat on that Alabama bus in 1955 – she’s credited as a meek, mild woman who innocently launched the American Civil Rights Movement with her actions, but she was an activist and part of organizations that strategically worked towards that moment in 1955. The book “At The Dark End Of The Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance” by Danielle McGuire explains this in depth. Comparatively, to my knowledge, Viola was not part of any activist networks in Nova Scotia prior to her arrest – though she supported and empowered the Black community through her entrepreneurism – and didn’t have the full support of her community when she chose to appeal her conviction. These women’s stories are very different, and until we do the work to ensure that the fullness of their stories are shared, we’ll continue to see myopic linkages made.
The desire to equate Black Canadian history to African-American history is another sign of how we distance ourselves from Blackness in this country. It helps to perpetuate this idea of racism and bigotry being American ideals – if we continuously attach our history of these ills to our neighbours to the south, it helps Canada to maintain some semblance of decency, even when those same ills have been rotting this country from the inside out since forever. People will call Viola Desmond our “Rosa” because they don’t see enough validity behind her just being Viola – Black people, experiences, and histories in this country are not considered worthy without a connection to America, further diminishing our existence and sense of belonging right here. It’s lazy, it’s insulting, and it needs to stop.
Canada will be going all out for its 150th birthday celebrations in 2017. My wish (and where much of my efforts will be placed) will be for a real push for better and more thorough inclusion of Black history within our Canadian tapestry, and a broadening of what the Canadian experience and identity looks like within our full scope of Canadians. Viola’s history, like the history of so many other Black Canadians, deserves better – and our present and future deserve better as well.