On Nov. 8, 1946, a businesswoman named Viola Desmond was en route to Sydney, N.S., for a meeting when her car broke down in New Glasgow. As she waited for repairs, a few hours drive from her final destination, she decided to kill some time by going into the local movie theatre. She asked to buy a ticket for a main level seat in the Roseland Theatre, but was turned down because she was black. She could buy a ticket for the balcony level, which Viola did, and then she simply sat in the lower level anyway.
The theatre manager tried to kick her out, but Viola refused to leave. The police were called. Viola was dragged out, arrested, and thrown in jail. Her crime—at least the one she was convicted of—was defrauding the province of the amusement tax, essentially the extra cost to sit on the theatre’s main level: one penny.
Mayann Francis was only nine months old when this all happened.
The daughter of a local pastor in Whitney Pier, a tiny community within Sydney, Mayann remembers growing up surrounded by immigrant families whose origins spanned from Russia to Lebanon to the Caribbean. “We grew up in this environment of inclusiveness and multiculturalism long before those terms were ever coined,” Mayann says.
Mayann didn’t hear about Viola’s story at home, nor did she learn about Viola in school. “It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, which is sad, that I became aware of her through a friend of mine,” Mayann says. “My friend was influenced by Viola Desmond to start a cosmetics company. She didn’t talk about the movie theatre; she talked about Desmond as an entrepreneur.”
In the mid-1970s, Mayann left Nova Scotia for the U.S., where she earned a master’s degree in public administration at New York University and worked on Wall Street as well as at the district attorney’s office in Kings County, N.Y.
After 16 years south of the border, she was persuaded to come back home to Nova Scotia for a job as employment equity officer at Dalhousie University in Halifax. By 1999, after a brief move to Toronto for work, Mayann took on the role of executive director of Nova Scotia’s Human Rights Commission. Then, in 2006, she became the first African-Nova Scotian to hold the position of the province’s lieutenant-governor.
“When you’re the first, it has a lot of meaning,” Mayann says. “It’s not about the individual. It’s about the individuals that are on your shoulders. I’m standing on other shoulders of people who’ve been in the trenches and fighting for equality and opportunity. These people have allowed me many opportunities.”
One of those women was Viola Desmond, whose act of defiance helped ignite a civil rights movement across Canada. With Mayann in her new role, the government of the day approached her office with the plan to grant Viola an official pardon, posthumously.
On April 15, 2010, Mayann sat inside Halifax’s Province House with every camera in the building focused on her. In front of her was a Royal Prerogative of Mercy Free Pardon for Viola—different from a regular pardon, in that it meant Viola was innocent to begin with that day in 1946.
Someone handed Mayann a pen. “I said to myself: ‘My gosh, 64 years ago, I was born,’ ” Mayann remembers. “Here I am, 64 years later—a black woman giving freedom to another black woman.”
The occasion was bittersweet. Viola Desmond died in 1965 with this mark on her. “But being the spiritual person I am,” Mayann says, “I believe she has to know that she is now free.”
Mayann’s tenure as lieutenant-governor ended in 2012. She has since published her first children’s book and, earlier this year, was awarded an honorary doctorate at Dalhousie University. As for her connection to Viola, Mayann remains close.
“Her gravesite is next door to where I live.” — Aaron Hutchins
(Portrait by Darren Calabrese)