When “Lady Justice” asked me to be a guest columnist for Black History Month, I was thrilled! Little did I know that writing this would trigger a lot of emotions. First off, choosing a topic was a challenge. I had several ideas but decided to dedicate this to those who risked it all and were not scared in the face of injustice.
I moved from Nigeria to Canada with my family in 2018. Growing up in Nigeria, I rarely thought about how others felt about my race or the colour of my skin. It was not until I started travelling the world as an adult that I became more conscious of the dynamics of how different races perceived each other in different climes. I became more aware of the attendant prejudices and discriminations that existed.
I also developed a profound respect for the people who were at the forefront of the fight for the rights and freedoms of their people. I did not initially set out to write about only women, but I am really impressed by the bravery of the women I have gotten to know about since moving to Canada, and the ones I read about while carrying out my research. I will focus on three for this column.
Viola Desmond – Also known as “Canada’s Rosa Parks.” In 1946, Desmond fought against racial segregation. She refused to leave her seat in the “whites only” section of New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre and was subsequently arrested for her activism. She was convicted of a minor tax violation derived from the one-cent tax difference between the seat that she had paid for and the seat that she sat on, which was more expensive. Desmond’s case helped start the modern civil rights movement in Canada. In 2018, she became the new face of Canada’s $10 bill.
Carrie M. Best – Carrie was another civil rights activist trailblazer. She was a Black Canadian writer and publisher who is well known for raising awareness about discrimination and segregation faced by Black Canadians. When she heard about Viola’s story, she decided to write a letter to the theatre, registering her displeasure and threatening to come over to purchase tickets, which she did. A few days later, Carrie and her son Calbert went to the same theater to purchase tickets and as usual, they were given tickets to the balcony assigned only to “coloured” people. They both refused to sit there and went up to the main floor. The police were called and they were forcefully removed from the theater. They were both fined and convicted for disturbing the peace. In 1946, Ms. Best and her son created the first Black newspaper, called the Clarion.
Lulu Anderson – Many may not have heard about her (there are also no pictures of her on the internet), but she is a very early example of Black activism in Alberta. Lulu Anderson tried to buy a ticket to see ‘The Lion and The Mouse’ at an Edmonton theatre in May of 1922. The staff denied her entry based on her skin colour and, according to the Edmonton Journal, she was thrown out onto the street and assaulted. Lulu decided to stand up for racial justice. She hired a local lawyer to sue the theatre.
Now to the findings that triggered me. I read these stories with enthusiasm, hoping that the legal system would at least favour these ladies but, alas, they all lost their cases in court!
A great lesson I learned from these women’s stories is to never stop fighting for what you believe in. Despite losing their cases, they continued to kick against social injustice and systemic racism, and I will forever be grateful to them because their actions have helped make Canada the more inclusive country it is today, even though challenges still abound.
We should all take a moment to think about the things we say or do and how they impact the people around us. We should continuously strive to be better people and always stand up for what is right.
Donna Purcell, K.C., (aka Lady Justice) and Ronke Omorodion are lawyers with Donna Purcell QC Law.