February being Black History Month in Canada, I was determined to read Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land by Graham Reynolds (Fernwood Publishing, 2016) before the month was out. Thank goodness February had 29 days this month, for I finished it on the last day.
In 1946, Viola Desmond was wrongfully arrested for sitting in a whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. In 2010, the Nova Scotia Government recognized this gross miscarriage of justice and posthumously granted her a free pardon. Most Canadians are aware of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a racially segregated bus in Alabama, but Viola Desmond’s act of resistance occurred nine years earlier. Chapter Three of this book is written by Wanda Robson, the younger sister of Viola. As such, it is valuable due to the fact that Ms. Robson not only recounts her own living history and memories of racism, but Viola’s story too, as only a close family member could. It makes for fascinating, informative reading.
Viola Desmond’s Canada is on par with Chris Benjamin’s Indian School Road in that it is an eye-opener regarding the history of Blacks in this country, just as Indian School Road was an expose regarding the (mis)treatment of aboriginal children in the residential school system. I was born in the 60’s in Upper Canada and, sad to say, we were never taught about the history of blacks in Canada in school. In English class we read To Kill a Mockingbird, not realizing (and never being told) that Canada had its own form of Jim Crow laws, lynchings and active KKK groups. In the book’s introduction, the author states: “On the subjects of race and racial segregation, Canadians seem to exhibit a form of collective amnesia.” The publishing of this book and the publicity it has since generated, will go a long way to assist in rectifying that amnesia. As such, it should be used in our school systems as I recommended Indian School Road should be. Certainly, it will prove to be a valuable reference book for anyone wishing to know about the history of blacks in Canada.
Graham Reynolds is a professor emeritus and the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice at Cape Breton University. Wanda Robson is the author of Sister to Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada’s Rosa Parks.