April will mark the first anniversary of a historic event in the legal annals of Nova Scotia. On 14 April 2010, Lieutenant Governor Mayann Francis posthumously pardoned Viola Desmond, whose 1946 tax evasion conviction was the result of a racist policy. In Canada, pardons are of different types; Desmond was granted a ‘free pardon’ under the royal prerogative of executive clemency. Free pardons acknowledge that a conviction was erroneous and makes it null and void. Unlike previously granted free pardons, Desmonds is the very first in Canada to be granted posthumously.
On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond, an African Nova Scotian, was a prospering businesswoman who owned a chain of beauty salons that was expanding throughout the province. While on a business trip in New Glasgow, her car broke down, and Desmond decided to while the time away in the Roseland movie theatre. When buying her ticket, Desmond asked to sit on the ground floor, as she could not see well from the balcony, but the attendant refused to sell her a floor seat, hinting at a racial segregation policy requiring blacks to sit on the balcony. Desmond decided she would sit on the ground floor anyway; the theatre manager brought in the police chief and the two of them dragged Desmond out, injuring her leg.
Desmond spent the night in lockup, proudly sitting up straight wearing her gloves. She was subsequently charged under the provincial Theatres, Cinematographs and Amusements Act, not of any formal race-related offence, but of not paying the higher tax for a balcony seat. Found guilty, she was fined $20 plus $6 in court costs. Desmond decided to appeal, but the four judges who heard the case in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia upheld the verdict, with only one of them mentioning race in passing. Desmond ended up leaving Nova Scotia; after attending business college in Montreal, she moved to New York, where she worked as an agent for performers; she died in 1965 at the age of 50.
Mayann Francis, who granted Desmond’s pardon on the advice of Premier Darrel Dexter, is a Black Canadian herself. Dexter also issued an official apology:
‘On behalf of the Nova Scotia government, I sincerely apologize to Mrs. Viola Desmond’s family and to all African-Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination she was subjected to by the justice system in November 1946.’ and ‘The arrest, detainment, and conviction of Viola Desmond is an example in our history where the law was used to perpetuate racism and racial segregation – this is contrary to the values of Canadian society.’
This gesture should serve as an example for pardons everywhere.