Today, 72 years after her momentous stand against racial segregation, we celebrate civil rights icon Viola Desmond as she becomes the first Canadian woman to be featured on our country’s banknotes. The Cape Breton University community is thrilled to celebrate this announcement, and for one CBU alumna in particular, this moment is a little extra special.
Wanda Robson is the youngest sister of Viola Desmond, and has been instrumental in bringing this story to the forefront and educating the public on its importance.
As many Canadians now know, on November 8th 1946, Viola was wrongfully arrested at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow for sitting in a “whites only” section. Rather than accepting her fate after being given an unfair trial and fine, Viola took a stand and set out to reverse the charge.
Like Viola, Wanda experienced the struggles of racial inequality in Canada throughout her life, but her spirit and dedication to social justice drove her to overcome them. At age 73, Wanda took the first step toward something she had been dreaming about her whole life – finishing her university education.
She had read about a course on race relations that Dr. Graham Reynolds was offering at Cape Breton University and reached out to audit the class. Wanda was captivated by Dr. Reynolds’ content and decided to enroll at CBU as a full time student. Conversations in the classroom allowed the pair to discover their shared interest in Viola’s story and the experience of African Canadians throughout history.
Wanda and Dr. Reynolds have worked together to educate others on the history of racial segregation in Canada and the changes that have happened thanks to civil rights icons like Viola. Following Wanda’s graduation in 2004, she and Dr. Reynolds continued to host seminars and presentations around the country, and in 2010, their hard work paid off.
Decades after Viola’s stand, the Nova Scotia government recognized the miscarriage of justice committed against Viola, and granted her a posthumous free pardon. That same year, Wanda’s book “Sister to Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada’s Rosa Parks” was published, and in 2016 Dr. Reynolds released “Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land” in partnership with Wanda. The bond between Wanda and Dr. Reynolds started in the classroom that day, as has gone on to fuel their journeys for nearly twenty years.
Now in her nineties, Wanda continues to be an invaluable spokesperson for the African Nova Scotian community and is happy to keep her sister’s legacy alive. In 2010, the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice was created and Dr. Reynolds was chosen as the first chair holder.
Viola made history and changed the landscape of racial equality in Canada.
Reflecting on today’s event, Dr. Reynolds said: “Today represents a remarkable milestone that in 72 years after Viola Desmond refused to give up her seat in the racially segregated Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, we are celebrating her courage by representing her on a new $10 banknote. This event gives Viola Desmond a lasting place in Canadian history and it helps us move toward a better, more just, future.”
Cape Breton University is proud to participate in the celebration of such a powerful woman and her contributions to the fight for racial equality in our country.