Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Viola Desmond, Canada's Heroine

Laura Secord

It is sometimes embarrassing to be Canadian. We Canadians often foolishly think of ourselves as superior to Americans, because they seem to see no other countries except America--celebrating, for example, their baseball “World Series.” But the truth is, Canadians are only one step more aware of the world: they think there are two countries, Canada and the US. And whatever they see happening in the US, they must have too. Kid brother syndrome.

The latest example is having a woman’s face on the $10 bill. A bunch of American feminists started a fuss over this, arguing that there has never been a woman on the ‘Cano currency. To be fair, there have certainly been women on the coinage, but it was apparently an important matter of discrimination that they were not shown on paper.

And so the Canadian feminists, and the Canadian government had to follow suit, and find a woman to put on the bills.

Never mind that there has virtually always been a woman on the Canadian paper, as well as metal, currency; and less often a man. Isn’t Queen Elizabeth a woman?

Okay, we’re supposed to ignore that. She doesn’t count. The Vancouver Province writes that this will be the first woman "other than the Queen" to be featured on Canadian currency.

But this too is untrue. Leave aside one obvious previous queen. Leave aside the symbolic Britannia. Leave aside images of anonymous, perhaps imaginary female scientists and peacekeepers. Even apart from all these, it used to be customary to give the other side of the bill to the Governor General and his wife, both getting equal billing. Granted, not always: one bill featured Princess Patricia alone.

So the project makes no sense; unless it is to discriminate against men.

But wait: there’s more. It is not enough that Canada must slavishly follow the US in putting a new woman on a bill. The Americans chose a black woman, a civil rights figure, Harriet Tubman. So, despite there being so many fewer blacks in Canada, despite there having been no (or less than anywhere else in the world, at least) slavery in Canada, despite black and white being insignificant categories in Canadian history, Canada actually had to find a black woman too: the mighty and well-remembered Viola Desmond.

This is provincial on several levels. Do our cultural and political “elite” really know so little about Canadian history? There should have been no problem with finding a prominent and worthy woman for the banknotes. Leave aside Queen Victoria, who could be considered the founder of the country, and was its first head of state. Didn’t these people grow up reading of Laura Secord and Madeleine de Vercheres? Did they not grow up reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables? Perhaps less famous, but still important, are Gabrielle Roy, Mary Travers (La Bolduc), who more or less founded the French Canadian musical tradition, Marguerite Bourgeoys and Marie de l’Incarnation, who started the first Canadian schools, Jeanne Mance, who founded the first hospitals, Emily Carr, Katherine Tekakwitha?

Madeleine de Vercheres

Choosing someone as relatively insignificant as Viola Desmond, with her literally penny ante experience of being held overnight in jail and charged $20 for not paying a cent in tax, is ultimately an insult to Canadian women. It suggests that this is the greatest thing they have ever contributed to Canadian culture or national life. And it is an insult individually to all the women more deserving of such an honour.

One can see politically correct objections to memorializing some of them. Not valid objections, but ones ignorant people might justify. Madeleine de Vercheres’s bravery was in defending her community against aboriginal people. Golly, we don’t want to see First Nations as the enemy, do we? Yet the French of the time were allied with the local Indians. The Mohawks who attached Vercheres were foreign invaders, from upstate New York, who sought to wipe out the resident Canadian tribes. Bourgeoys, Mance, de l’Incarnation, and Tekakwitha are Catholic saints or beatified. But, if their contributions are worth admiring, this ought to be neither here nor there. Obviously, a deeply religious person is going to be of some religion. To bar them from public recognition for this fact is to discriminate against all religions and religious—despite the truth that religiosity is a trait any society in its right mind ought to promote.

And even were these wrongheaded possible objections granted, there were good and obvious candidates. Why, other than slavish imitation of the Americans, or racism, choose instead Viola Desmond?

And there is a further problem. Laura Secord or Madeleine de Vercheres defended Canada. Lucy Maud Montgomery or La Bolduc built Canadian culture. Desmond did what she did, to the extent that it was of benefit to anyone, for an ethnic minority within Canada, not for Canada as a whole. It is wrong, therefore, for Canada as a whole to especially commemorate it, because by doing so, unless it at the same time commemorates heroines from every other conceivable ethnic group, the Canadian government is giving preferential treatment to one ethnic group over others. It is saying that the concerns of black Canadians are more important than the concerns of Icelandic Canadians, or Sri Lankan Canadians, or Welsh Canadians, or Maltese Canadians, or any other of a hundred or two recognizable ethnic groups.

And then, even if you are big on racism being okay if a currently-favoured group is favoured, even if you accept the idea that heroines of black Canadians deserve racial preference, Viola Desmond does not seem especially worth the honour. There was never any legal segregation in Canada. There was never violation of equal treatment by the law. Which is to say, there was no struggle for civil rights. Desmond was no Rosa Parks. Her act had no legal significance.

In the US South of Rosa Parks, segregation was a matter of law. In Canada, there were no Jim Crow laws. There was no legal distinction made between “black” and “white.”

In the absence of laws requiring discrimination, there is no need for laws prohibiting it. Because it is naturally in the best interests of any business not to (illegitimately) discriminate. What business anywhere is better off with fewer customers?

If they really want to lose money—then that is their business. There is such a thing as freedom of association.

There was and can have been no systemic discrimination in Nova Scotia in Desmond’s time. One theatre may have chosen to discriminate racially, as was and is their natural, which is to say inalienable, right; or they may not have. It seems unlikely, as it would be against their own interests. And the theatre management denied it. If they did, and the segregation that did exist was not by mutual consent, this was simply a business opportunity for some other theatre in town.

In fact, ironically, Desmond owed her own business success to such informal business discrimination. Black hair, and black skin, is physically different from “white” hair. As a result, white beauticians and hair stylists did not take black customers. The extra training needed to work with black skin and hair no doubt did not seem worth the small number of possible extra customers. Who in any case would probably be more inclined to trust another black woman to understand their needs.

As a result—a great business opportunity for Desmond and many other black woman across North America. She had her own hairdressing school and her own line of black beauty products.

It might, therefore, not have occurred to her that she was striking a blow against racial segregation. This could be why she herself never mentioned race or racial discrimination at her trial. She just wanted to sit near the screen, and did not understand why she could not. Did she, for that matter, even see herself as unambiguously “black”? After all, her mother was white. And the reality that her own family was mixed demonstrates the general lack of racial segregation at the time in Nova Scotia.

If the law wanted to discriminate against her, they did not go out of their way to do so. Race was not mentioned by anyone at her trial. She was charged with refusing to pay the provincial entertainment tax, and, on conviction, fined only the minimum amount. She did not appeal. Later, urged by others, she launched an unsuccessful attempt to sue. It was not entertained by the courts, primarily because she had waited so long. There is a logic to this, which is why the time limitation is there: if there was an obvious injustice, why should it take the victim so long to decide so?

Of course, the official line is that the theatre refused to sell her a ticket for the ground floor because of her race. But the only witness we have to this fact is Viola Desmond; who might be considered, under the circumstances, to have some interest in the outcome of the case. The prosecution presented three witnesses who testified otherwise: that she bought a cheaper gallery ticket, but insisted on sitting on the ground floor. They might all have been lying; but the judge had every reason to accept the word of three witnesses over that of one accused. And, frankly, so should we, by all known rules of evidence.

It is not hard to see what might have occurred without assuming racism. Yes, the theatre was segregated. However, according to the management, this was simply a matter of local custom. It was not official theatre policy, and certainly not legally required or enforceable by law. It is entirely plausible that this was so. Like any other ethnic group, like humans generally, blacks tend to prefer to hang with other blacks. So too with “whites.” So segregation is the natural state, if everyone is given their druthers.

Blacks were, on the whole, in those days, poorer than whites. Tickets to the balcony were only two thirds the price of seats on the ground. So, naturally, the blacks would tend to congregate there. Indeed, they seem to have had the better deal. Balcony seats are not necessarily worse seats: in opera houses, theatres, and playhouses, VIP boxes are at the balcony level. Good deal for the blacks; why wouldn’t they prefer the balcony? Whites seem to have been paying a premium for no good reason.

So, Desmond comes in and asks for a ticket. The ticket agent simply assumes she wants a ticket for the balcony, for which she appears to be eligible. Desmond, unaware of local custom, assumes her cut-price ticket gives her the right to sit anywhere. She, being near-sighted, prefers the ground floor. When she sits on the ground floor, and is asked to move to the balcony, she takes offense. She assumes they are messing with her because of her race, and refuses. But from the point of view of theatre management, she has paid only thirty cents for a forty cent seat. Maybe they try to explain this to her. Maybe she does not believe the explanation. Does she really offer to pay the difference? Or is she too angry to listen to the explanation?

If we must commemorate Viola Desmond, let’s at least keep it in proportion to the incident.

Remember her on the penny. That is literally what her case was worth.

We can honour her every time a new one is minted.

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