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Viola Desmond Day: Time for a day symbolizing the fight for racial equality in Nova Scotia

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Photo: blackpast.org

Will this be one more missed opportunity?

The new Liberal government last week introduced the February Holiday Act to establish an annual mid-winter break on the third Monday of February, beginning in 2015. "The new holiday will give people time to spend with their families and friends, just as the majority of Canadians already do," Labour Minister Kelly Regan explained.

The unanswered question: what to name the new day?

While the government has said it will ask school children to come up with suggestions, let me offer my own unsolicited nomination.

It is long past time for Nova Scotians to honour and celebrate Viola Desmond.

In 1946, Desmond, a black businesswoman from Halifax, became our very own Rosa Parks -- nine years before anyone had even heard of Parks.

Parks is rightly celebrated today for touching off the '60s American civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. But Desmond also refused to give up her seat -- this one in the whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow.

When she ignored instructions to move to the black section in the balcony, the manager called the police who dragged her from the theatre and trucked her off to jail. Although Desmond was officially convicted of defrauding the federal government -- downstairs ticket prices were higher than in the balcony, so she'd paid one cent less amusement tax than required -- everyone knew racism was the real reason she was arrested.

An appeal against the conviction -- supported by the newly formed Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People -- ultimately failed, but the sight of this principled black woman standing up alone against state-sanctioned segregation galvanized and inspired many in Canada's own nascent civil rights movement.

While Viola Desmond's contribution to the fight for racial equality is slowly being recognized -- in 2010, the Nova Scotia government issued a posthumous pardon and apologized; in  2012, she was featured on a Canada Post commemorative stamp -- it is time to take the next step and honour her with a day symbolizing the continuing fight for equality in Nova Scotia.

Viola Desmond Day.

It has a lovely ring to it.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: blackpast.org

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