Remembering Viola Desmond
Documentary screening part of African Heritage Month events
Wanda Robson is looking forward to taking part in a New Glasgow screening of a documentary remembering her sister Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond this weekend.
On Saturday, as part of African Heritage Month events, the North Sydney resident will be in the town where Desmond was arrested in 1946 for the screening of “Long Road to Justice – the Viola Desmond Story,” a film produced by the province in 2012.
The event will include a postscreening interview and question and answer session with Robson.
The film will air the following day on Eastlink television, along with a 30-minute, “In Conversation” interview with Robson, where she reflects on Desmond and her legacy and the honours that have been posthumously bestowed upon her.
When she originally wrote to the mayor of New Glasgow almost a decade ago suggesting there should be some commemoration of Desmond there, Robson noted the town took up the challenge.
“The people of New Glasgow couldn’t have treated me better if I was the queen of England,” Robson said in an interview. “They were so kind, they just went all out, the council, the people … and they still keep in touch with me.”
It’s been a busy few months for Robson. In December, she was front and centre in Ottawa as it was announced that Desmond’s image will be represented on the newly designed $10 bill. This will mark the first time that a portrait of a Canadian woman will be featured on a regularly circulating Bank of Canada note.
“Going to Ottawa and having Viola on the $10 denomination, I never ever thought that would happen,” Robson said. “When she was one of the five nominated, I though that was an honour in itself.”
She noted she called her sisters in Montreal, Emily, age 103, and Eugenie, age 93, to tell them about the experience, and they were thrilled.
“I can’t find enough adjectives to describe it,” Robson said.
On Nov. 8, 1946, Desmond was driving through New Glasgow when her car broke down. To pass the time while it was repaired, she decided to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She purchased a ticket for a seat on the main floor. After she was told it was against theatre policy to sell main floor seats to black people, Desmond refused to sit in the balcony.
She was removed from the theatre by police and jailed overnight.
Desmond was ultimately fined and returned to Halifax, but decided to fight the charge — tax evasion for being one cent short in the cost of the sales tax on the ticket — in court. The conviction was upheld.
In the decades since, Desmond has become a symbol for the fight against racial segregation in Nova Scotia and Canada. She has been posthumously pardoned and has received a number of honours including a postage stamp.
Robson has written a book about her sister, spoken at schools and taken part in ceremonies across the country where various posthumous honours have been bestowed upon the civil rights icon and pioneering businesswoman.
As time has gone by, Desmond said she has developed a different perspective of her sister and she has realized the impact she has had.
Robson noted that while Desmond never had children of her own, she left her estate to support the educations of her nieces and nephews, as education was extremely important to her. Robson herself decided to pursue post-secondary education in her 70s.
“We are so proud to host the screening of ‘Long Road to Justice: The Viola Desmond Story’ … and appreciate the opportunity to present this documentary to our community during African Heritage Month,” New Glasgow Mayor Nancy Dicks said in a news release.
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