Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Deep Thoughts on the Ferry: The Viola Desmond

When the sun is shining or there is presence of Nova Scotia sunshine (fog), I usually opt to use the ferry service as my means of getting to work. The 25-30 minute walk is a great way to start the work day, and the evening ferry rides are often quiet relaxing - the perfect way to decompress after a day's work.

This week, however, there is an added bit of excitement to my daily commute. I had the fortune of travelling across the big harbour on the Viola Desmond.

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The Viola Desmond is the newest member of Halifax Transit's harbour fleet after being placed into circulation last week. The vessel's namesake is perhaps fitting given the events taking place in the US and around the world. The name was selected through Halifax's ferry naming contest, which ran from February 1-15 of this year and included other possibilities such as, Vincent Coleman and Private John Curwin*.

For those of you unfamiliar with Viola Desmond's story let me give you a bit of a Cole's notes background. Viola was a Nova Scotia businesswomen in the 1940s. She also happened to be Black. In 1946, while on a business trip in New Glasgow, she decided to see a movie. Of course, this doesn't seem like any activity out of the ordinary, except that she wanted to purchase a floor ticket, but wasn't allowed to do so because of her skin pigmentation. Despite the laws at the time, Viola sat in the lower section, and was later arrested on charges of failing to pay the theatre tax - also known as "failing to be white." She spent a night in jail, paid the fines, and then eventually went on to battle it out in court - making Viola's actions a game changer in the Nova Scotia Civil Rights Movement. On April 15, 2010, Viola Desmond received an official apology from the Government of Nova Scotia (although 45 years after her passing). See the following Canadian Heritage Minute for a visual history.

The situation in 1946 is an interesting case, given Nova Scotia's contribution to the underground railroad and the push to end slavery. The province was of particular significance during the abolition of slavery in relocating freed slaves. Lawrence Hill's 2007 novel, The Book of Negroes focuses specifically on Nova Scotia's role. This, of course, does not mean that racism was not present in the province at that time, or that of Viola Desmond's, or even today. My point being, that this province has a history of opening its boarders during a time of great need (Syrian refugees, anyone?!). It provided opportunity - albeit quite challenging and riddled with inequality - to those able to leave slavery's rule in the United States, and yet only a few decades ago, Black Nova Scotians were are still being treated unfairly. In fact, as I sat down to write this post and took that bit of information in, I was dumbfounded as to how that was possible. It's so absurd when you think of it, that the color of one's skin - completely disregarding their capabilities, experiences, and qualities as a human being - could have such significance for someone just wanting to watch a movie like anyone else. And yes, I realize that as a white female from a Western country, my views are a bit more rose-tinted because racism has never personally affected me or been directed towards me, but it's still just so incredibly ridiculous to me. Even the events of the past week, the negativity directed towards the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the countless unnecessary deaths of African-Americans leave me equally mind-boggled over how it is 2016 and we still haven't figured out that inside traits (knowledge/experience, contributions to one's community, work ethic, etc) are more important than outside or uncontrollable ones (skin colour, passport, height, size, etc)!

But as I sat on the ferry on my way to work, I felt a sense of pride and excitement knowing that I was aboard the Viola Desmond. Placing her name on a boat doesn't erase the past, but it will be a daily reminder of Nova Scotia's darker history and the woman who took a stand against it.

-the Orange Canadian

*Before the contest was shortlisted to 5 choices, the Municipality received plenty of submissions for possible names, a few of which were pretty funny. These included the Fart Hopper, Yeah Buoy!, Donair and Katy Ferry. It's not Boaty McBoatface or Ferry McFerry, but what can you do...

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