During a recent trip to my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, we visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights which opened in September of 2014. The building is located in The Forks area of downtown and it is an imposing structure that can be seen from blocks away. The unique edifice was born from a juried architectural competition – one of the largest of its kind in Canada.
The judges looked at 63 entries from 21 different countries. Antoine Predock from New Mexico had the winning design.
The Human Rights Museum presents stories from real Canadian people – both born and naturalized citizens – who have suffered from discrimination. The stories are sobering, disturbing and profoundly sad. However, there are glimmers of hope for a future that celebrates diversity and treats all members of society with kindness, respect and equanimity.
One of the most compelling stories to be found in the museum is that of Nova Scotian Viola Desmond. She has been featured on the Canadian $10 bill since 2018.
Viola Desmond was a successful business woman and beauty school operator in the summer of 1946 when she found herself with a broken down car in Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She would have to wait a day for the repairs to be completed so decided to kill some time by attending a movie at the Roseland Theatre.
Viola requested a main floor ticket as she was near-sighted and wanted to get the best view. She was sold a balcony ticket. After realizing that the theatre was segregated (there were no signs indicating this), she tried to pay the extra penny for the main floor but was denied.
After returning to her seat on the main floor Viola was dragged out of the theatre and unceremoniously dumped out onto the street. She was arrested and taken to prison where she spent a 16 hours in a cell. She was not allowed to speak to a lawyer.
A trial ensued which upheld that charge that she was trying to defraud the government out of a penny tax.
Viola Desmond’s life was never the same.
Sadly, she closed down her school and moved to the USA. She died at the age of 50.
Viola Desmond was given a posthumous pardon in 2010 when the Nova Scotian government finally admitted that this was a terrible social injustice.
Next time you have a new $10 bill, take a moment to notice the lady that graces that currency and to think about the plight of Viola Desmond and others in our country who were so unfairly treated.
We have to do better.