Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice

The Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice at Cape Breton University is named in honour of the pioneer Black businesswoman and civil rights icon who many regard as Canada’s Rosa Parks. In 1946, Viola Desmond was wrongfully arrested for refusing to give up her seat in a racially segregated theatre in the town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. The Chair was created in 2010, following the action of the Nova Scotia Government in posthumously granting Viola Desmond a free pardon.

Since its establishment, the first chair holder, Dr. Graham Reynolds, has been active in raising awareness about the history of Blacks and the struggle for racial equality in Canada. Dr. Reynolds has given various presentations at schools and universities throughout the Province. His recent book, Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land (Fernwood Publishing, 2016) is the first authoritative and comprehensive account of the Viola Desmond story and the history racial segregation in Canada. It is written for general readers as well as all students of Canadian history.

Timeline of Events

  • 1914 – Viola (Davis) Desmond born in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
  • 1946 – Viola Desmond wrongfully arrested for refusing to give up her seat in a racially segregated theatre in the town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.
  • 1954 Legal end to racially segregated schools in Nova Scotia.
  • 1959   The Fair Accommodations Act ended the practice of discrimination in all public places on the basis of race, creed, colour or nationality.
  • 1963 – The Human Rights Act
  • 1965 – Viola Desmond died at the age of 50.
  • 1967 – Nova Scotia establishes the Human Rights Commission to enforce legal protection for all citizens against discrimination on racial, religious or ethnic grounds.
  • 2000 – Viola’s youngest sister, Wanda Robson, returned to university at the age of 73 to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree at Cape Breton University. At this time, she audited a race relations course taught by Dr. Graham Reynolds. When Dr. Reynolds’ lecture included Viola Desmond’s story, the two quickly formed a student-mentor and collaborative bond.
  • 2004 – Wanda Robson graduated from Cape Breton University
  • 2004-2009 – With the support of Dr. Reynolds, Wanda began advocating on behalf of her older sister, Viola, by speaking at universities, schools, women’s groups and community organizations, as well as giving media interviews and writing several letters to the Mayor of New Glasgow asking for an apology for her sister’s wrongful arrest.
  • 2009 – Mayor Barrie MacMillan wrote back to Wanda indicating that the city council had agreed to offer an official apology.
  • 2010 – The Nova Scotia government granted a free pardon to Viola Desmond.
  • 2010 – Former CBU President, John Harker, created the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice and appointed Dr. Reynolds as the first holder of the Chair.
  • 2012 – Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in Viola’s honor.
  • 2012 – Wanda Robson received a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa from Cape Breton University.
  • 2014 – The Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg created a permanent display memorializing the Roseland Theatre incident.
  • 2015 – The Nova Scotia government created Heritage Day, a new provincial holiday, and named February 15 of that year Viola Desmond Day.
  • 2015 – The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada accepted the nomination of Viola Desmond as a person of national historic significance.

  • 2016 – Viola Desmond was chosen as the first Canadian woman to be represented on a banknote. The Chair served as the scholarly expert in advising the Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau, and the Bank of Canada in the selection.  
  • 2017 – Dr. Graham Reynolds offered a series of three free online lectures titled “Viola Desmond’s Canada,” later to be offered as a for-credit course at Cape Breton University.
  • 2018 – The $10 banknote on which Viola Desmond appears is officially released.