Editor's Note

By Kristen Hutchinson

Issue 023, Volume Six | Winter 2021

Sharon Stevens, Viola Desmond claims her seat at the New Central Library in Calgary, 2019

PHOTO Courtesy of the artist


In 1946, Viola Desmond went to the movies at the Roseland theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She was sold a ticket for the balcony section of the theatre, unaware that the floor section of the theatre was reserved for white patrons. When asked to leave her seat and go to the balcony, where the black movie goers sat, she refused. The police were called and Desmond was dragged out of the theatre and jailed overnight without legal representation. She was convicted for tax evasion because she failed to pay the one cent difference between the seats.  1 

Carrie Best, a civil rights activist who had started a Black newspaper in New Glasgow, supported Desmond. 2 Melanie Murray Hunt, who played Best in a Heritage Minute film about Desmond , said that Best was “the catalyst for Viola standing up and taking the case to court…She was the first to challenge the defacto segregation laws in the theatre…She understood the power of journalism…the power of the written word…the power of resistance and protest.” 3 She goes on to say that while segregation was the law in the US, it was custom in Canada. 4 A lesser-known case happened in 1914 when Charles Daniels was not allowed to sit in the whites-only section of the Sherman-Grand Theater in Calgary. Unlike with Desmond, “he sued for damages and won.”  5 Cheryl Foggo’s short film Kicking Up a Fuss: The Charles Daniels Story (2019) “brings insight to this little-known local civil rights story. With actual images of the transcripts from the court case and interviews in the theatre today, Daniels reminds us that history is full of forgotten heroes.” 6 

As you hopefully know, February is Black History Month. What you might not know is that it has been celebrated in Canada since 1995 when a motion making it official passed in Parliament. According to the Canadian government, Black History Month “is about honouring the enormous contributions that Black people have made, and continue to make, in all sectors of society. It is about celebrating resilience, innovation, and determination to work towards a more inclusive and diverse Canada—a Canada in which everyone has every opportunity to flourish.”  7 

This year the Alberta Media Arts Alliance (AMAAS) and the Pan-African Collaboration for Excellence (PACE) put together video series of short films that feature contemporary and historical voices from Black communities in Canada. AMAAS executive director Sharon Stevens says she hopes the films that AMAAS has shared about Desmond, Best, and Daniels “continue to inspire Canadians to fight for justice and equality, to recognize that small acts of defiance can have great impact on systemic issues.” 8 

Director of PACE Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika says “it is time to explore the specificities of blackness in Canada.” 9 The theme the PACE’s Black History Month 2021 is asking difficult questions, including a series of short films called Snapshots of Blackness. A new film in the Snapshots of Blackness series will be posted every day throughout the month. The films draw attention to a variety of Black Canadian experiences. Haji Sharif, the executive director of the Council for the Advancement of African Canadians in Alberta, talks about how Alberta is currently the number one destination for African Canadians from continental Africa. Evelyn Asiedu, a PhD candidate Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology at the University of Alberta, has argued for the importance of collecting demographic information on Black and racialized students in universities. 10 In her Snapshot of Blackness film, she talks about her experience as a Ghanian Canadian woman. Sarah Arlene Nyakeru, executive director of L’Insitut Guy-Lacombe de la famille in Edmonton, talks about how “Canada is a country of hope, a country of opportunities. So diversity should be our strength, so let’s embrace it for our future generations.” I look forward to watching more Snapshot videos as they are released daily.

I invite you to watch the films about Desmond, Best, and Daniels here: https://www.amaas.ca/watchparty/
You can view the Pan African Collaboration for Excellence series here: https://pace.ualberta.ca/2021/01/31/moving-into-new-frontiers/

You might also want to check out Desmond Cole’s 2020 book The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance: “Puncturing the bubble of Canadian smugness and naive assumptions of a post-racial nation, Cole chronicles just one year—2017—in the struggle against racism in this country.”  11 

You can watch the Skin We're In documentary here: https://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/episodes/the-skin-were-in

Issue 023 Header Image: Rocio Graham, Book IV, Illuminations and Engulfment, 2020


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