So why does everyone know so much about Rosa Parks and so little about Viola Desmond?Could it be that the racism which was pervasive in Canada during Desmond’s life, was swept under the rug or minimized?
By SHEILA COPPS
First published on Monday, March 12, 2018 in The Hill Times.
OTTAWA—Viola Desmond made history back in 1946 when she refused to sit in a segregated balcony at the cinema in New Glasgow, N.S.
That was nine years before Rosa Parks became a symbol of the American civil rights movement by refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus.
So why does everyone know so much about Rosa Parks and so little about Viola Desmond?
Could it be that the racism which was pervasive in Canada during Desmond’s life, was swept under the rug or minimized?
In the United States, Negro History Week was designated in 1926 to coincide with the birthdays of president George Washington and black statesman Frederick Douglass.
That recognition morphed into Black History Month in 1970.
In our country, it took another quarter century to even acknowledge Black History Month.
Canada’s first black woman Member of Parliament, Jean Augustine, was the force behind a unanimous motion in the House of Commons to establish Black History Month back in 1995. History was made again last week when Desmond’s image was unveiled on the ten dollar note by finance minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz.
International Women’s Day provided the perfect backdrop for recognition of this Canadian hero.
It also marked a ground-breaking day for African-Canadians as it is the first time a black person appears on Canadian currency. It is the second recognition of non-monarch women. A fifty-dollar bill in recognition of the Famous Five suffragettes was launched by the last Liberal government back in 2004.
Canada’s first black woman Member of Parliament, Jean Augustine, was the force behind a unanimous motion in the House of Commons to establish Black History Month back in 1995. The Hill Time file photograph
It is incredible that we have gone for more than 150 years featuring only white leaders and ignoring women and minorities..
This year, International Women’s Day was celebrated across the globe in different ways. The women of Saudi Arabia rejoiced over their long-fought battle to be allowed to legally drive a car. The prohibition against female drivers will be lifted in June.
Catalyst launched a skyline takeover of Bay Street, with businesses flashing a downloaded Venus symbol of woman on office towers across the financial district. Even the iconic golden arches of McDonald’s were upended in the name of equality.
All these are very important symbols in the move toward equality. However, symbols are not enough.
Back in 1995, when Augustine moved the motion to launch Black History Month, it was not done in a vacuum. Her vision was part of a larger government strategy to build diversity into the story of Canada.
Up until that point, the mandate of Canadian Heritage was to celebrate the two official languages of Canada, English and French. When it came to aboriginal peoples, their cultures were neither recognized nor funded for any celebration of their heritage. I was puzzled because it seemed the only heritage our department recognized was that which came from Europe. We were similarly absent in the dialogue on Canadian diversity.
When I became minister, I asked the department why Indigenous celebrations were not supported, and was told that their funding partner in government was the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
But that ministry did not have a mandate for cultural funding of any kind, so when it came to the celebration of Indigenous peoples, there was no funding. Along with the recognition of black history, in 1995 the government instituted National Aboriginal Day June 21 and National Multicultural Day June 27. They would join St-Jean-Baptiste Day and Canada Day as part of the official 10-day annual birthday celebrations.
And we finally started to tell the whole story of Canada.
The first black person came to our country along with Samuel de Champlain. His name was Mathieu da Costa and by all accounts, the African-born da Costa was responsible for Europeans’ survival during their first rugged winter in the New World.
He was multilingual and made quick friends with the Mi’kmaq people who aided the explorers with survival techniques and home-grown food.
The fact that nine out of 10 Canadians still don’t even know da Costa’s name speaks volumes about the narrow scope of white history that dominates the landscape.
No schoolchild would pass exams without some mention of the epic voyage of Champlain.
Until last week, Desmond’s heroism was neither known nor officially acknowledged but that all changed with the emergence of the new 10 dollar bill.
Symbols are a start but Canada needs more. The recognition of Viola Desmond was certainly a step in the right direction.
But the country needs more than symbols to reach full equality.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.