Nova Scotia apologizes, pardons Canadian civil rights heroine

Posted Apr 15, 2010 by Stephanie Dearing
Viola Desmond, now deceased, had attended a movie in 1946 in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia while waiting for her car to be repaired.
Justice Minister Ross Landry chats with Wanda Robson  sister of Viola Desmond  after her remarks.
Justice Minister Ross Landry chats with Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond, after her remarks.
Photo courtesy of the Province of Nova Scotia.
Halifax, Nova Scotia - Sitting in a section of the theater reserved for white people at the time, Viola Desmond refused to move from the prohibited seat, which resulted in her arrest and a night in jail. A charge was laid against her of defrauding the province one cent, which was the difference in the price between the seat where she was supposed to sit and where she had actually sat.
63 years later, Viola Desmond finally received an apology from Nova Scotia for her wrongful conviction, as well as a pardon of the charge against her. The pardon, of itself, is extraordinary. It is the first posthumous Free Pardon ever granted; and, based on innocence, "A free pardon is an extraordinary remedy and is considered only in the rarest of circumstances."
What makes the apology and pardon all the sweeter for family members of Viola Desmond is the exoneration of Canada's first civil rights activist, a woman who was years ahead of her time in fighting segregation.
The actual apology is brief, and was read by Premier Darrell Dexter:
On behalf of the Nova Scotia government, I sincerely apologize to Mrs. Viola Desmond's family and to all African Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination she was subjected to by the justice system in November 1946.
The arrest, detainment and conviction of Viola Desmond is an example in our history where the law was used to perpetuate racism and racial segregation -- this is contrary to the values of Canadian society.
We recognize today that the act for which Viola Desmond was arrested, was an act of courage, not an offence.
The government of Nova Scotia recognizes that the treatment of Viola Desmond was an injustice. This injustice has impacted not just Mrs. Desmond during her life and her family but other African Nova Scotians and all Nova Scotians who found, and continue to find, this event in Nova Scotia’s history offensive and intolerable.
On behalf of the province of Nova Scotia, I am sorry.
The actions of the past help future generations understand the damage done by racism.
As we move forward, I want to reaffirm this province's commitment to equality for all Nova Scotians. Mrs. Desmond should be remembered as a leader of her time.
Viola Desmond's sister, Wanda Robson, attended the ceremony. Speaking to the audience, the 83 year old woman said "What happened to my sister is part of our history, and needs to remain intact. We must learn from our history so we do not repeat it. If my parents were here today, it would warm their hearts to see Viola recognized as a true Canadian hero.”
What the government of Nova Scotia did not acknowledge was how Viola Desmond's fight against her criminal charge resulted in the end of the province's segregation laws in 1954. Viola was helped by the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.
Dalhousie University offers a scholarship made possible by the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the Dr. Calvin R. Ruck Scholarship.
Nova Scotia's Lieutenant-Governor, Mayann Francis, has herself broken new ground because she is the first person of colour to be appointed as the Queen's Representative in the province.