February is African Heritage Month and a Cape Breton University professor has published a new book that may change the way we think about Black history in Canada. Graham Reynolds, Professor Emeritus and the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice at CBU, has written a groundbreaking book, Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land, which is being released for sale this month by Fernwood Publishing.
The book provides a complete account of the Viola Desmond story, as told, in part, by Wanda Robson, Viola’s youngest sister, who is a contributor to the book. Viola Desmond was a Black businesswoman who was wrongfully arrested in 1946 for refusing to give up her seat in the whites-only section of a racially segregated theatre in New Glasgow, NS. Dr. Reynolds says, “She has come to symbolize the struggle for racial equality in Canada and she is, in many respect, our Rosa Parks. Her act of courage occurred nine years before Rosa Park’s similar protest against racially segregated seating on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.”
Viola Desmond’s Canada also provides a concise history of Blacks in Canada and it includes a wide-ranging discussion of slavery, racial segregation and the civil rights movement in Canada. “These topics are not well known in Canada,” says Dr. Reynolds. “Most Canadians have very little understanding of the extent of racial discrimination that existed in Canada and this includes slavery during the 18th century as well the practice of American “Jim Crow” style racial segregation during most of the 20th century.”
The book is intended for general readers as well as all students in Canadian history. “I would like my book to be read by teachers and students in senior high and in university level courses in Canadian history. It is a story that all Canadians should know about. Racism is still a part of Canadian culture and in order to combat this kind of prejudice, we need to have an open and honest dialogue about race and the history of race relations in our country. There is no better place to begin this dialogue than in our schools and in our university classrooms.”