An homage to Viola Desmond by the Parliamentary Poet Laureate, commissioned by Senator Bernard
On International Women's Day, Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard recited a poem for her Senate colleagues in the Chamber dedicated to women who have fought hard for equal rights.
“Canadian women have and continue to inspire us all to stand up and take our rightful place. I asked Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke to write a poem to celebrate International Women's Day and further underline the important contributions made by women of African descent to our societies. I suggested that the poem commemorate Viola Desmond's legacy, the first Canadian woman to be depicted on the face of a Canadian banknote. A great achievement for all women, but we must continue to promote the importance of equality by combating gender, race and all forms of oppression.”
Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard
On Political Economy; or, The Ballad of Viola Desmond
It's impossible proof! The ten-dollar
Bill supporting her face demonstrates "Crime pays": But,
first, the heroine has to holler;
She has to be jailed —
Because she didn't pay the penny tax
Required to sit where Caucasian folks sit
In that segregated cinema. Blacks,
In 1946, were deemed unfit
To share the same seating at the Roseland
Theatre in New Glasgow, and were told,
"Some rows are 'Whites Only.'" Who could withstand?
Voila! Viola—worth her weight in gold.
Desmond was a beautician, but her Change
Wasn't cosmetic. She wouldn't give
Two cents to black racism. That was strange:
It wasn't how most "Coloureds" had to live.
So Nova Scotia swiftly saw her jailed,
Tried her, declared her Guilt: Not for breaking
Racist rules, but only because she failed
To pay one cent the Province was taking
To support 'Whites Only' rules a-plenty
(As if New Scotland were South Africa).
Viola, convicted, was fined twenty
Dollars. That's her beauty spot, I tell ya.
Her two cents made a real Difference, made
Change begin to happen, nine years before
Rosa Parks sparked the Civil Rights crusade
States-side, a century past Civil War.
As an entrepreneur, she sought Value
And Profit in Beauty, Sis Desmond did.
But she strove for Justice because it's true—Beauty turns ugly
where Justice is hid.
Her bill is "disappointingly smooth," eh?
One can't feel her scars, scrapes, and scabs, that she Suffered to
bring about a "better day,"
Whose dawn would usher in Equality.
Still, she is the first Canuck femme and person
Of colour, to see her face integrate
Canadian currency. Partisan
Of Justice, ponder her interest rate —
From two cents to ten dollars, an increase of 50,000%.
Also Note, her Royal Pardon: Miracles don't cease! Royal
Mint is Viola Desmond now!
Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016-2017)
Top photo: Viola Desmond in her studio, ca. 1938.