DON’T LOOK BACK —— the past is exactly where it belongs. I think this — believe this, with all my heart. Even as I weaken, even as I age… I look ahead. And never stop fighting. NEVER. It’s how I imagine my mother’s final moments —— fearless. And if this now is my appointed time to die… then I face it WITHOUT FEAR OR SHAME!
On Thursday, the Bank of Canada announced that the first Canadian woman on a banknote will be Viola Desmond, a black Nova Scotia woman who refused to leave the whites-only section of a movie theatre in 1946. Her dignified stand against racism—a decade before Rosa Parks—is a curiously little-known part of Canadian history. Maclean’s spoke to Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively about Desmond—and attended the ceremony at the Canadian Museum of History announcing her selection for Canada’s new $10 bill.
Q: Can you tell me about the work you’ve done on Viola Desmond, and what got you interested in her story?
A: I was doing research on the role that Canadian law has played in the history of our country in terms of either promoting racism—supporting it, backing it up—or helping to dismantle it. I got drawn into quite a number of cases where individuals who wanted to get service in restaurants and theatres and other places in Canada that were segregated went to the courts. A number of them tried to seek damages. There were one or two victories, but mainly they lost. I found Viola Desmond was the first woman whose case was taken up in the courts, and it wasn’t that she tried to sue them for throwing her out of the theatre; it was that they took the law and used it to arrest her. That was really shocking to me. We had no laws in Canada actually requiring segregation, like they did in the United States. But here we had people using the law—the amusements tax act—to enforce segregation, and our courts allowed them to do that.
Q: Who was Viola Desmond, outside of this experience in the theatre: what was her career and life before this incident?
A: She was born in Halifax and she came from a family that would be described as very middle-class within the black community. She was reasonably well-educated, she did high school and then was teaching in a segregated black school in Nova Scotia. And then she decided to branch out into business and she took training as a hairdresser in the United States and in Montreal because no one would train a black woman for hairdressing in Nova Scotia. She had to go further afield and she did, she was ambitious. And she came back and she not only set up a very successful salon—she called it a Studio of Beauty Culture—but she set up a school to train other black women, and they came from all over eastern Canada to train with her and be able to open their own salons. In addition, she began to market her own hair products and cosmetics.
It was when she was driving her supplies down into other areas in Nova Scotia that her car broke down (in New Glasgow). That caused her to say, ‘Oh, I might as well take the evening off,’ and off she went to the theatre.
Q: Walk us through what happened in the theatre and the immediate aftermath.
A: There was seating on the main floor and seating in the balcony, and she wanted a seat on the main floor because she couldn’t see well. The ticket agent sold her a ticket and she was going to the main floor when they called her back and said, ‘No, no, you don’t have a ticket for that.’ So she said, ‘I must have bought the wrong ticket.’ She didn’t know that the theatre was segregated. And she went back to the wicket and said, ‘I would like one down please.’ And they said, ‘No, we can’t sell those tickets to you people. You have to sit in the balcony.’
So right then and there—this was spontaneous, it was not something she’d thought about—she went and sat down on the main floor. Her thinking at the time, we discovered later, was that she was a very respectable person and she wasn’t doing anything wrong or causing any trouble, and that they would leave her be.
But they didn’t. They called the theatre manager, who called the local police, and a police officer came in and the two men—white, burly men—dragged her out of the theatre. In the scuffle, she lost her purse and a shoe, and they dragged her off to jail, they locked her up and she spent the night in jail.
I like to think Stanley knows a decent amount of physics after 30 years of self study, certainly enough to impress young Ford :) And wouldn’t it be fantastic if he could, at least once, casually correct older Ford on his math??
And yes, Stanley does intentionally mispronounce things just to rile his brother up XDD