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An homage to Viola Desmond by the Parliamentary Poet Laureate
March 17, 2017
NEWS

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard.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!

  • George Elliott Clarke

Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016-2017)

Top photo: Viola Desmond in her studio, ca. 1938.