Saturday, December 10, 2016

Viola Desmond to be on a new Canadian $10 bill

Viola Desmond, a Nova Scotia businesswoman who once refused to sit in a blacks-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre, will be the first woman other than a Queen or a Princess to appear on the front of a Canadian banknote.  Desmond’s image will be featured on Canada’s next $10 bill, which will be issued in 2018.

It should come as no surprise, I suppose, to learn that Canada has pockets of racial prejudice similar to what I knew growing up in the 1960's American South, but I was surprised to learn that Canada had its own Rosa Parks in 1946, 9 years before Ms. Parks said "No" when asked to give up her seat on a public bus to a white person.

Last year, the neighbouring province of Nova Scotia, celebrated its first annual "Heritage Day" statutory holiday.  The holiday was used to commemorate 
Viola Desmond, an African-Nova Scotian, who, in 1946, bought a movie ticket at a New Glasgow movie theatre. But instead of sitting upstairs where the "coloured people" were supposed to sit, she took a seat on the main floor.  She was jailed for that "crime", but was granted a special pardon by the city of New Glasgow in 2010, 63 years after her arrest and 45 years after she died.

I grew up in America's Deep South, and have lived in 6 different "Bible Belt" states, the most recent being Alabama.  Growing up, I saw a lot of things I didn't understand, and that I thought were wrong; I accepted them as "just the way things are."  It wasn't until I was nearly an adult, I suppose, that I perceived the hatred, generations of it, in which those things were grounded.  I also realized that I was "expected" to continue the cycle and adopt the hatred into my own notions of "how things should be."

Viola Desmond exemplifies the type of courage we can all emulate, and strive to demonstrate in our own lives.  It's the courage that simply says "No!" to things that we know, without question, are wrong.  

In 1946, how many of the good white citizens of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, do  you think had the courage of principle to stand with her?  Very few, if any, I'm sure.

A friend of mine who grew up in New Glasgow, described the town as he knew it in the 1960's:

Even when I was a pre-teen (late 1960's), the balcony at that theater was known as "n_gger heaven" 
and good white families didn't allow their children to sit up there – no matter how much we begged.

Down the street was the "Cozy Corner" diner where the tables at the front – in view of the street, 
were "reserved," you might say, and blacks were "expected" to sit in the back tables, away from 
the windows.

Who wants to live in a place like that, among people like that?  Not my friend from New Glasgow.  Certainly not me.  We both left communities in which hatred was deeply woven into the social fabric; passed downed from generation to generation in a self-perpetuating cycle.

The people of New Glasgow did the right thing in absolving Viola Desmond of a crime ... but only after waiting 63 years.  They waited until a time when it cost them nothing; when it required no sacrifice.  When it was convenient.  When it took no courage.  What's that worth?  Not much, in my book.

Viola Desmond stood up and spoke back to a reprobate authority.  Viola Desmond had the courage of one among many thousands.

Why can't more of us do the same? Why do you think most people simply can't act courageously when the chips are down?