Nova Scotia

Wanda Robson, activist who championed legacy of her sister Viola Desmond, dies at 95

The youngest sister of Nova Scotia Black civil rights icon Viola Desmond died over the weekend.

Her work helped to raise awareness of the contributions of her sister to Canadian civil rights

Wanda Robson with the Royal Canadian Mint silver collector coin honouring her sister, Canadian civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond. (CNW Group/Royal Canadian Mint)

Wanda Robson, the youngest sister of the late civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond and an activist in her own right, died over the weekend. She was 95.

Born in Halifax on December 16, 1926, according to Cape Breton University's Beaton Institute, Robson was instrumental in bringing recognition to her sister's contribution to Canadian civil rights. 

Desmond, who was Black, was arrested in 1946 for refusing to leave a whites-only section of a New Glasgow, N.S., cinema and eventually convicted of a tax offence. Her defiance helped motivate the struggle against racial segregation in Canada.

Thanks to Robson's work, the Nova Scotia Legislature posthumously pardoned Desmond in 2010. Robson was present when then premier Darrell Dexter apologized for the wrongs that had been done.

It was the first time a posthumous free pardon was granted in Canada. A person who is granted a free pardon is deemed to have never committed the offence.

WATCH | Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond, dead at 95: 

Activist Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond, dead at 95

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Wanda Robson, the youngest sister of the late civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond and an activist in her own right, has died at 95. Robson was instrumental in bringing recognition to her sister's contribution to Canadian civil rights.

Robson, then 83, told those gathered for the historic event that she was "numb," and jokingly added not to send for paramedics as she was, in fact, "numb with joy."

Robson lived with her husband, Joe, in North Sydney, N.S.

Fiercely passionate about the importance of education, Robson told dozens of students gathered at a Toronto school event in 2017 that as a young girl growing up in Halifax she saw discrimination first-hand. 

She said her best friend at the time was a white girl and she could not understand why she wasn't allowed to play at her house.

Breanna Beckles, left, and her grandmother Andrea were thrilled to meet Robson, right, at Chartland Junior Public School in Toronto. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Robson, who spoke at many educational events for children, believed they were the best hope for a future free of racial discrimination.

"I think it's up to the population who know, who understand, but I really think our salvation is with the little ones," Robson told CBC News.

Robson was pleased, though modest, about her work leading to Desmond's legacy being commemorated on the $10 bill in November 2018.

At the launch of the new bill at the Canadian Museum For Human Rights in Winnipeg, Robson said she hoped people would think of the theatre incident and Desmond's courage when they touched the bill.

"The Queen is in good company," she said with a smile. 

At the launch, Robson used the first $10 bill to buy a copy of Viola Desmond, Her Life and Times, a book she co-authored with Cape Breton University professor Graham Reynolds.

Robson takes part in an interview after her sister was chosen to be featured on a new $10 bank note following a ceremony at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on Dec. 8, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

In 2004, while in her 70s, Robson earned a bachelor of arts degree from Cape Breton University.

Robson was announced as a recipient of the 2021 Order of Nova Scotia in December and was scheduled to receive the award at an investiture ceremony early this year.

Speaking to CBC Radio's Mainstreet Cape Breton on Monday, two of Robson's friends and colleagues recalled her enthusiasm and decency.

Graham Reynolds, professor emeritus and Viola Desmond chair in social justice at Cape Breton University, said he first met Robson when she sat in on a class he was teaching on race relations in 2000.

He said she was the "bright star" of his course and all the younger students looked up to her.

After graduating, Reynolds said Robson felt empowered and self-confident and began speaking about her sister and civil rights at schools of all levels across the province.

Letters she penned to the mayor of New Glasgow and Dexter set the wheels in motion for the 2010 pardon and apology, said Reynolds.

He said Desmond, Robson and Robson's mother, Gwendolyn, set wonderful examples for activists to come by merely living their daily lives. 

"These three women lived their lives, took on their responsibilities and set examples for us on how to live a very decent and hopeful life that I think will serve us for years to come as we still try to shape Canada and make it a more equal place," Reynolds said.

Graham Reynolds is a professor emeritus and the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice at Cape Breton University. (Fernwood)

Ron Caplan said he met Robson about 11 years ago after hearing the Viola Desmond story and learning she had a sister in North Sydney.

He called her and they decided during that first phone call that they would write a book together — Sisters to Courage.

Caplan said Robson was a welcoming person and her kindness always shone forth.

"An incredibly generous, kind, decent person who happened also to play a major role in the history of civil rights and fight for opportunities for other people here in Canada," he said.

Despite years devoted to raising awareness of her sister's legacy and teaching people about the impact of racism, Robson told CBC News in 2017 she was still taken aback by all the attention she got.

"When people say [they are] so honoured and happy to meet me, I say, 'Me?'" she said.

"It's getting to the point where I think, 'I don't know what's going on here, but I must be somebody.'"

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.

Viola Desmond, right, who became a civil rights icon for her actions in the late 1940s, was kept alive over the decades by her sister Wanda Robson, left. (Wanda Robson)

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With files from CBC Mainstreet Cape Breton

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