New Ontario college will honour Nova Scotia civil rights pioneer

A new school in Ontario will honor Nova Scotia’s civil rights icon Viola Desmond.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board announced that the new school will accept 682 elementary students in the fall.

Desmond, a businesswoman and beautician, was jailed in 1946 for sitting in the white section of a movie theater in New Glasgow, NS.

The politics of the theater forced blacks to sit up on a balcony.

“Your case was one of the most well-known cases of racial discrimination in Canada and has helped start the modern civil rights movement in Canada,” the board said in a press release.


Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson, said the honor was bittersweet.

“Every time I hear they give Viola an award, I think, ‘I’m so happy,'” said Robson. “But I’m a little sad because mom and dad aren’t just here to find out about it.”

Robson is the last living sibling in a family of 15 children. One of her sisters died of complications from COVID-19.

Having a school named after Viola is a touching tribute, Robson said. In her will, Desmond asked her nieces and nephews to make financial contributions for their education.

A chance to learn

Robson hopes the school, one of four named after Desmond, Ontario, will lead students to learn more about their sister’s story.

“It’s as simple as going to Hamilton or Vaughan or Milton or Ajax and they saw this Viola Desmond school and said, ‘Well who is she?'”

Robson said her sister would have been proud to hear of these national achievements.

Since her death, Desmond has been considered one of Canada’s most famous residents.

In 2018, Desmond was honored by being put on the $ 10 bill.

Earlier this year, a teenager from Vaughan, Ontario asked Stephen McNeil, then Prime Minister of Nova Scotia, to repay the fine and court fees given to Desmond for the 1946 incident.

The Viola Desmond Elementary School in Hamilton is aimed at students from kindergarten through eighth grade and is due to open in September.

For more stories about the experiences of black Canadians – from racism against blacks to success stories within the black community – see Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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