Ten for Fighting a Good Fight

Many Canadians don’t know the name Viola Desmond. And that is an indictment of the level at which we have been taught our history.

But really, no Canadian should ever have had to know the name Viola Desmond, in the context for which we know her. That any of us recognizes the name, therefore, must be considered an indictment of our country.

Desmond was stuck in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, on November 8, 1946, when her car broke down. She checked into a hotel for the night, and then she decided to go to the movies.

She couldn’t see very well, so she asked for a ticket in the orchestra. She didn’t know the theatre was segregated. She didn’t know the clerk, in keeping with this policy, had sold her a ticket for the balcony. The ticket-taker pointed out that her ticket was for an upstairs seat. She went back to the box office to try to exchange the balcony ticket for one downstairs, only to be told, “I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.”

Getting the message, but refusing to accept it as legitimate, Desmond chose to try to take a seat downstairs. Enter the manager. Enter a police officer. Exit Viola Desmond, dragged out of the theatre with such force that she injured her knee and hip, and made to spend the night in the town pokey.

Ever gone to a hockey or baseball game on a cheap ticket and tried to sneak down into the good seats?

(I actually pulled off this gambit in reverse once, at Wrigley Field. This was before every Cubs home game was more than sold out, and there were ten to fifteen thousand empty seats in the stadium. Heavy rain clouds were rolling in from the west, and I made my way from the exposed field-level seats to the nearly-empty upper deck, which was covered. Made it just before the ushers started blocking the ramps from the lower level and turning away those who had my idea, but not my timing.)

The point of this minor digression: it’s not the sort of thing you spend a night in the hoosegow over. And the white burghers of New Glasgow must’ve known that too, because the next day in court, Desmond was informed of the charge against her: tax evasion.

The province of Nova Scotia charged an amusement tax on movie tickets, and the tax on tickets in the balcony was less that that collected on tickets for seats down below. The difference was a grand total of one cent.

So Desmond stood accused of trying to defraud Nova Scotia out of a penny. Desmond stood alone, because she was not provided with legal counsel, nor was she advised of her right to a lawyer. There was no Crown attorney in the courtroom that day, either.

For the grievous offence of “defrauding” the government out of its penny — despite Desmond’s protests that she had tried to pay the difference between a downstairs ticket and the one in the balcony that she had been sold — the judge fined her twenty-six dollars.

Out of which the theatre manager was paid six dollars for prosecuting the case.

But as the Supreme Court justice who dismissed her attempt to appeal said, this wasn’t about tax evasion. It was about Jim Crow’s Canadian cousin and the misuse of the power of the state.

To review:

  • Movie theatres should not have been segregated.
  • The police should not have had used force causing injury in a case of a dispute over a movie ticket.
  • Desmond should have been allowed a lawyer.
  • The judge should have shown common sense, and a sense of perspective, and not fined someone twenty-six dollars over a single penny.
  • The manager of the theatre should not have profited from his part in the matter.
  • Viola Desmond should not have died with this conviction on her record. It should not have taken until 2010 — forty-five years after her death — for Nova Scotia to grant her a pardon.

Viola Desmond’s image will be on our ten-dollar bills beginning in 2018. It would’ve been poetic justice, and hugely symbolic, for her image to be on the penny, but we’ve done away with that coin. A newly created denomination, a $26 bill, would be an apt commemoration, but would likely detract from the gravity of her story.

We should celebrate that decision, but our triumphalism and urge to pat ourselves on the back should be tempered with no small measure of regret, because yes, it says something about our country that we are preparing to honour a fighter for civil rights.

But it says something equally eloquent, and scathing, and somehow more true about our country that we ever required (let alone continue to require) fighters for civil rights.

Yeah, You Right

NPR has just posted Allen Toussaint’s forthcoming (final) album, American Tunes, which closes with a cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” and it’s poignant and resonant on many levels.
Toussaint had performed the song live on many occasions, at least as far back as the 2006 Montréal Jazz Festival. It’s not hard to understand why.
The song made its debut on Simon’s 1973 LP There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. He was writing about the sense of malaise that came along with the re-election of Nixon, the Watergate scandal, the long, national nightmare that was Vietnam, the dusking of the Age of Aquarius. The larger theme, the one that accounts for its durability, is the gap between what has been promised and what has been delivered.
To hear Toussaint perform the song is to hear a person of colour, displaced by the storm (an event whose aftermath made it patently obvious just how completely and bloodlessly the social contract wasn’t merely abrogated but torn up), singing about feeling forsaken, misused, bone-weary and so far away from home. Battered souls, broken dreams, a sense of unease. Wondering what went wrong.
It occurred to me, this is a road Toussaint has been travelling on before. Three years before Rhymin’ Simon, Lee Dorsey’s Yes We Can LP included a Toussaint composition, “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” In the bridge of “American Tune,” there’s the image of the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea. In “Brother,” we’re asked to consider: What happened to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about? Did it really ding-dong? It must have dinged wrong. It didn’t ding long. Two symbols of America, not doing what they’re supposed to. No wonder that, in the wake of the storm, there was an unfruited plain where the Lower 9th Ward used to be.
I don’t know if Toussaint thought about this thematic similarity when he chose to add the Simon song to his set, but both songs speak to a sense that a very big cheque was written that centuries of American exceptionalism haven’t been able (or willing) to cash. In “Brother,” Toussaint wrote: Deep down inside, we’re covering the pain. It’s an old thing, it’s a soul thing, but it’s a real thing. It just seems like a natural progression to the resignation of Oh it’s all right, it’s all right, you can’t be forever blessed.
That weariness and resignation is what makes “American Tune” such a fitting final musical statement (although an unintended one — far as he was concerned, tomorrow was going to be another working day).