Nova Scotia

Viola Desmond Day stalled by relatives

The Nova Scotia government is shelving a proposal to name Nov. 8 for Viola Desmond after hearing from family members opposed to using that date.

The Nova Scotia government is shelving a proposal to name Nov. 8 for civil rights icon Viola Desmond after hearing from family members opposed to using that date.

Desmond, a black woman, was arrested on that day in 1946 for sitting in a whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow. She died in 1965.

The opposition Progressive Conservatives want to create Viola Desmond Day as a way of remembering her struggle for equality. But Sharon Oliver, Desmond's oldest niece, doesn't support it.

"I am not persuaded at this point that what is being proposed is the right thing to do," Oliver told MLAs examining the opposition proposal.

"What I do know is that Nov. 8 is not a date to memorialize or honour Viola Desmond," said Oliver, speaking on behalf of her mother and two of Desmond's sisters.

Leslie Oliver, with the Black Cultural Society, said holding an event on Nov. 8 distracts from the larger problem of racism.

"When coupled with Ms. Desmond's name, that date draws attention to her being assaulted at the theatre, rather than to the larger issues," he said.

He suggested March 21 — International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination — as a more suitable date to honour Desmond.

The government wants more time to consult with black Nova Scotians. Percy Paris, minister of African-Nova Scotian Affairs, said the Progressive Conservative bill will not move ahead without further input.

"The PC party, I think, probably had good intentions," said Paris. "I don't think there's an understanding there of the dynamics within the community. I don't think there's enough understanding of the community."

Cape Breton West MLA Alfie MacLeod said he only proposed the law after speaking to one of Desmond's sisters.

"I understand what Viola Desmond's sister was wishing for," he said, "and she was wishing for a day to recognize someone that has made a significant difference in our province."

Spent night in jail

Desmond's public court battle helped put an end to Nova Scotia's segregation laws.

Her fight began when her car broke down in New Glasgow and she decided to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre. The 32-year-old beautician sat downstairs, unaware of the theatre's rule that blacks at that time could sit only in the balcony seats.

Desmond was asked to leave but refused. Eventually, the manager and a police officer pulled her out.

After spending the night in jail, she was convicted of tax evasion for not paying the full price to sit up front and, therefore, the right tax — a difference of one cent. She was fined $20 and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Desmond fought 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.

Last month, the province apologized to Desmond and her family, and granted a special pardon to recognize that a conviction was made in error.