Nova Scotia

Rights icon Desmond gets N.S. apology

Nova Scotia is officially apologizing to Viola Desmond — six decades after the black woman was convicted for sitting in a whites-only section of a movie theatre.

Province grants special pardon decades after her death

Nova Scotia has apologized and granted a pardon to Viola Desmond, a black woman who was convicted for sitting in a whites-only section of a movie theatre in 1946.

"Today is meant to right a 65-year-old wrong," Justice Minister Ross Landry said Thursday in a ceremony at Province House.

Premier Darrell Dexter apologized to Desmond's family and to all black Nova Scotians for the institutional racism of the past.

"This injustice has impacted not just Mrs. Desmond during her life and her family, but other African-Nova Scotians and all Nova Scotians who found and continue to find this event in Nova Scotia's history offensive and intolerable," he said.

The pardon for Desmond, who died in 1965, was signed by Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis — the first black person to serve as the Queen's representative in the province.

"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," Francis said.

This is the first time such a pardon for the innocent and wrongly convicted has been posthumously awarded in Canada, according to the province.

It was an emotional day for Wanda Robson, Desmond's youngest sister.

"I'm numb with joy," the 83-year-old said. "She's just one of many of us who have suffered. And when I say suffered I don't mean that you just couldn't do anything anymore. But it was a momentary sting of racism and then you pick yourself up, you dust yourself off and get on with life."

'Dragged her out'

Desmond, then a 32-year-old beautician, was driving from Halifax to Sydney on Nov. 8, 1946, when her car broke down in New Glasgow. She decided to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre while she waited for repairs.

Desmond sat downstairs, unaware of the theatre's rule that blacks could sit only in the balcony seats. She was asked to leave but refused. Eventually, the manager and a police officer pulled her out.

"They sort of took one arm and sort of dragged her out," Robson told CBC News before the ceremony. "She said, 'I just went limp.'"

Desmond spent the night in jail. The next morning, she was convicted of tax evasion. Prosecutors made no mention of race. They told the judge that Desmond didn't pay the full price to sit up front and therefore didn't pay the proper tax — a difference of one cent.

She was fined $20 and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Desmond decided to fight the case with the help of the newly created Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. She lost the first appeal but won a second attempt on a technicality.

Thanks to Desmond's public court battle, the Nova Scotia government ended up dismantling its segregation laws.

Robson said her sister would have welcomed the province's gesture.

"She would feel so justified. She would feel that this is long overdue but [say], 'I thank you.'"

It was Robson who started the ball rolling to get an apology for her sister when she called the mayor of New Glasgow last year and asked that town council pass a motion recognizing the incident.

Robson said she and the town then began discussions about erecting a plaque in town to memorialize her sister and what had happened.

Justice Minister Landry, who represents the area, heard about what municipal politicians were discussing. He took the matter to the premier, and it was then decided to offer a provincial apology.

The Opposition tabled a bill Thursday afternoon to designate Nov. 8 as Viola Desmond Day in Nova Scotia.

Cape Breton West MLA Alfie MacLeod, who tabled the bill, said it's important to commemorate Desmond.

"If we don't have such a day in the province of Nova Scotia, people will forget what took place," he said. "The whole idea behind declaring Viola Desmond Day was so that Nova Scotians would never forget where we were at and where we've come from and what we've accomplished."

MacLeod wanted the bill fast-tracked through second and third reading Thursday, but the government refused to do that. The premier said the bill needs to be improved.

Desmond's ordeal earned her an unofficial distinction as Canada's Rosa Parks. Parks made history in the U.S. when she was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man. Her arrest inspired a massive bus boycott which brought Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to prominence and led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended segregation on public transportation.

With files from The Canadian Press