Nova Scotia·Analysis

Is Viola Desmond really 'Canada's Rosa Parks'?

Journalists often call Viola Desmond "Canada's Rosa Parks" — but should we?

Some argue the comparison deflects attention from Canada's experience of racism by looking at the U.S.

Viola Desmond sparked a civil rights movement in Nova Scotia by refusing to leave the lower section of a New Glasgow theatre.

Journalists often call Viola Desmond "Canada's Rosa Parks" — but should we?

"I certainly do not," says Tony Ince, minister for African Nova Scotian Affairs.

"Why is it that we refer to Viola as Canada's Rosa Parks, given the fact that she had stood up for this social injustice nine years before Rosa Parks had stood up on the bus?"

The fact that many more Canadians know about Parks than Desmond shows how overlooked African Canadians have been in the history books, he says. "We've got a number of people in this country who have been trailblazers and we need to look at that history in its entirety."

In 1946, Desmond refused to leave a section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., that was implicitly for whites only. She was dragged out by police and thrown in jail overnight.

Desmond was fined $20 and an additional $6 in costs. There was also the possibility of a 30-day jail sentence if she didn't pay — but Desmond won an appeal in court on a technicality. Segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia in 1954, in part because of the publicity generated by Desmond's case.

But Ince says when he attended Nova Scotia schools as a boy, "I was under the impression — when it came to education — that racism and that slavery stuff didn't happen here in Canada."

"Now as a young black child, walking out into the streets, I was getting a different picture than what the education system was showing me."

Like many African Nova Scotians, Ince said his parents knew about Canadian black pioneers like Desmond, but didn't see them in the textbooks.

Canada the good

Renee Martin, a writer in St. Catharines, Ont., says that disconnect can make people think things are much "worse" for black Americans.

"And in so doing we position ourselves as good to their bad," she says. "When you see something like Black History Month, a lot of what happens in Canada is a fixation on the Underground Railroad, whereas in the United States you get a broader scope of African American history.

"How many Canadians don't know that slavery actually existed here? By calling her 'Canada's Rosa Parks,' it sort of suggests that what she did was of lesser value, because obviously we're the good ones. So whatever was going on here wasn't as bad — the Jim Crow segregation that was happening in Canada wasn't as bad as the Jim Crow segregation that was happening in the United States."

While Martin is happy to see the new Heritage Moment about Desmond, she recalls the older spot about the Underground Railroad.

"There's this idea that Canada is this non-racist utopia. Even African Americans largely function with this belief. And that's because racism here functions very differently than in the United States. It's just as coercive — it just happens to function differently."

That's why we need to tell our story our way, Martin says, "so the invisible becomes visible."

"I would say racism in Canada functions in such a way that it is made to seem invisible, making it that much harder to get recognition for our struggle, so that when we do speak up, we're being told that we're too sensitive because we don't have it as bad as over there."

Learning from history

Craig Smith, president of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, understands why people make the link between Parks and Desmond. Both women protested racist practices with an act of passive resistance that led to important changes.

"It kind of elevates [Desmond's name] because Rosa Parks is looked at as being the mother of the American civil rights movement," he says. "For them to be talked about in the same breath, I don't think does any disservice to either."

Smith says the goal should be to make Desmond's fight part of a basic Canadian education. 

"Here in Canada, we're really good at — for lack of a better term — whitewashing history, or even just omitting it from the history books altogether so nobody has to learn from it," he says.

Smith, an RCMP officer who wrote You'd Better Be White By Six A.M. about racism in the RCMP, says better understanding Desmond's Canadian experience can help all of us learn about Canada's history of racism, and how that affects the present.

Canada's Viola Desmond

"When they're doing African Canadian studies, you need to make sure that in the classroom they're talking about the African Canadian heroes," he says. 

"My mother grew up in New Glasgow. In New Glasgow, Truro, Pictou — you knew if you were black you couldn't go into Woolworth's or any of the lunch counters and get served. For the most part, you knew that by sundown it would be a good thing for you to be out of town."

His parents purchased a house on Halifax's Bauer Street in 1968 and some neighbours started a petition to block them from buying it. Of course, it wasn't a "whites only" street, but everyone "knew" where to live. 

"Here's the U.S. versus Canada. In the U.S. as a black person, I know there are some places that aren't going to hire me so I need not fill out the application," Smith says. "In Canada, I can go in, they'll give me the application, they might even give me an interview. And when I leave that application goes into the trash can.

"What's the difference? We're just more subtle in the way we do it."

So what should we call Viola Desmond? Tony Ince has an idea.

"I'm a simplistic kind of person. I would say the title that would fit her is just her name. Viola Desmond. Let's just move with that and tell the whole story of the name and that person."