Grace Benac reports on Canadian civil rights trailblazer Viola Desmond and the Ryerson award ceremony in her honour
While civil rights activist Rosa Parks may have been a trailblazer in the United States, her Canadian counterpart Viola Desmond had been protesting for over nine years by the time Parks’ bus boycott hit local news.
On March 7, Ryerson’s Black History Awareness Committee hosted the jam-packed Viola Desmond Day Awards, a ceremony celebrating Desmond’s life, for the third year in a row.
The awards, each named after a history-making black Canadian woman, were given to three women in the Ryerson community and one high school student.
Shantae Johns, a fourth-year Ryerson nursing student, received the Maddy Hayes award. Johns said she felt blessed to have her efforts recognized.
“It’s one thing to work hard, but it’s another thing to get recognized for it,” said Johns.
The remaining three awards went to Althea Prince, a Ryerson sociology professor, Shauna Bookal, the events coordinator for the Rams, and Jaicyea Smith, a Grade 11 student at Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto.
Desmond, who died in 1965, was a black woman who became successful running a lucrative beauty products business and salon in Nova Scotia. She was arrested and charged in 1946 when she refused to give up her seat in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre. Desmond’s case made history as one of the most talked-about examples of racial discrimination in Canada. Her crime, officially recorded as tax evasion by the Canadian government, wasn’t pardoned until last April.
Her 84-year-old sister Wanda Robson, who spoke at the ceremony, described Desmond as a “taskmaster.”
“Viola Desmond did not do anything less than 100 per cent. I wouldn’t want to work for her,” she said.
Darrell Bowden, who works with the Ryerson-based Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Services (DHPS), said the ceremony was a “huge undertaking”, especially when it came to transporting Robson from her home in Nova Scotia to Toronto.
Bowden said recognizing Canadian Black history is as important as taking note of the Black Americans who have made history.
“To say that Viola Desmond was the Rosa Parks of Canada is a misnomer. Rosa Parks’ bus boycott didn’t happen until 1955. [Desmond] was arrested in 1946. It would be more accurate to say that Rosa Parks was the American Viola Desmond,” he said.
Cassandra Johnson, also of the DHPS, praised the Ryerson students and staff who helped make the event possible. She said the organization process was a solid example of teamwork.
“It was a full university effort,” said Johnson, a third-year sociology student.
The ceremony also featured several other guest speakers and artists, including Canadian blues singer Jackie Richardson and jazz pianist Joe Sealy, who opened and closed the ceremony.
“Canadian students must speak out against oppression in order for society to move forward,” said Robson.
“Your time is limited. Do what you have to do, but if you see injustice, speak up and do something about it.”
Photo by: Steven Goetz