Nova Scotia

New Ontario school will honour Nova Scotia civil rights pioneer

A new school being built in Ontario will honour Nova Scotia’s civil rights icon Viola Desmond. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board announced the new school will welcome 682 students from kindergarten to Grade 8. 

School in Hamilton will house 682 students from kindergarten to Grade 8

Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond, holds a $10 bank note featuring Desmond during a press conference in Halifax in 2018. A new school in Ontario will bear Desmond's name. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

A new school being built in Ontario will honour Nova Scotia's civil rights icon Viola Desmond. 

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board announced the new school will welcome 682 elementary students this fall. 

Desmond, a businesswoman and beautician, was jailed in 1946 for sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow, N.S., movie theatre. 

The theatre's policy forced Black people to sit upstairs in a balcony.

"Her case was one of the most highly publicized cases of racial discrimination in Canada and helped start the modern civil rights movement in Canada," the board said in a media release.


Desmond's sister, Wanda Robson, said the honour is bittersweet.

"Each time I hear they gave an accolade to Viola, I think, 'I am so happy,'" Robson said. "But I am a little sad because mom and dad are not here just to get to know about it."

Robson is the last living sibling in a family that had 15 children. One of her sisters passed away from complications from COVID-19.

Having a school named after Viola is a touching tribute, Robson said. In her will, Desmond asked that financial contributions be given to her nieces and nephews toward their education.

A chance to learn

Robson hopes the school, one of four named after Desmond in Ontario, will result in students learning more about her sister's story.

"It's as simple as if someone was visiting Hamilton, or Vaughan, or Milton, or Ajax, and they saw this Viola Desmond school and say, 'Well, who is she?'"

Robson said her sister would have been proud to hear of these national accomplishments. 

Since her death, Desmond has become recognized as one of Canada's most famous residents.

In 2018, Desmond was honoured by being placed on the $10 bill.

Earlier this year, a Vaughan, Ont., teenager asked Stephen McNeil, Nova Scotia's premier at the time, to repay the fine and court fees handed to Desmond for the 1946 incident.

Viola Desmond Elementary School in Hamilton is for students from kindergarten to Grade 8 and is scheduled to open in September.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.