Canadian Review of Materials on Viola Desmond’s Canada

Viola Desmond’s Canada

A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land

by Graham Reynolds  foreword by George Elliott Clarke  with Wanda Robson  

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the policies of the Canadian Government reflected a developing culture of Jim Crow in Canada. Through the actions of the Laurier Government, Blacks were either excluded from Canada, or they were effectively denied equal employment rights. During World War I, the practice of Jim Crow extended to the military under the Borden Government. Initially, the Government regarded Blacks as entirely unfit for military service and did not allow Blacks the right to fight as patriotic citizens in the defence of their country. After sustained pressure from a growing chorus of protests, the Government relented, but instead of permitting Blacks to join integrated combat units, it created the No. 2 Construction Battalion, a racially segregated, non-combat unit lead [sic] by a white commander and officers. The battalion received official authorization on July 6, 1916, and drew nearly 900 Black volunteers from Nova Scotia and Ontario.

Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land is an ambitious scholarly work written for secondary school students and post-secondary readers. As such, it includes extensive endnotes, bibliographical references, an index, and, as will be explained, extensive documentary materials. Reynolds is a retired professor and Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice at Cape Breton University. The subtitle more accurately describes the book since it provides a concise history of Blacks in Canada from colonial times when French and English settlers brought slaves with them to the New World, through the period when the Underground Railroad brought escaped slaves from the United States to British North America, continuing with the period from 1880-1960 when various forms of segregation were practiced in Canada, much as the Jim Crow laws separated African Americans from the white peoples of the United States. Capitalizing on the rediscovered history of Viola Desmond, the book includes a chapter by Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson, recounting her memories of racial prejudice and reflections upon her sister’s treatment at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, N.S. in the autumn of 1946.

The second half of the book contains four chapters and is entitled “A Documentary History”. One chapter presents a translation of the record of the inventory and sale of contents of Marie Marguerite Rose, a freed slave and businessperson who died in Ill Royale, New France, in 1757. Reynolds describes this source material in the historic context. In an accompanying “Teacher’s Guide” that is available as a 12-page PDF download from the publisher’s website, Reynolds provides additional commentary on the chapter, suggests questions and activities that high school teachers might use, and identifies additional online resources for teachers. Many of the suggestions extend beyond the immediate chapter contents to other historic figures and events, for example asking students to compare Marie Rose’s life with that of Marie-Joseph Angelique who was accused of arson in Montreal. URLs for supplementary sources are provided with the questions. The guide contains similar suggestions and resources for the other chapters in the second half of the book and also for Wanda Robson’s chapter. The guide will be an invaluable aid to teachers wanting to use the book to introduce primary source material into the study of history.

Chapter 5, “West Indian Immigration to Canada, 1900-1920: What the Census Figures Don’t Tell Us”, illustrates the evolving nature of history as new research questions interpretations made by earlier historians. In particular, Reynolds provides copies of correspondence from officials of the Immigration Branch detailing the arrival of West Indian immigrants into maritime ports. The surrounding text includes a discussion of the racist views of the government and its inability to halt the flow of immigrants to Canada where cheap labour was in demand. A chapter on “The Culture of Racism in Canada” is appropriately illustrated by archival photographs of the Ku Klux Klan in Kingston and Vancouver, and by KKK documents from Fredericton in 1934. It also addresses the role of film and minstrel shows, complete with actors in black face, that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Blacks in the first half of the twentieth century. The final chapter, “Pearleen Oliver”, recounts the contribution of this Nova Scotian advocate for racial equality. Part of the chapter is told in her own words transcribed from an interview conducted by a researcher in 1991. This short example of oral history introduces yet another form of primary material that helps researchers understand the past. Likewise, an appendix contains transcriptions from three panelists on a roundtable speaking at the Fourth Promised Land Project held in Dartmouth, NS on May 2011. Their words, together with comments from Reynolds who was the moderator and from several members of the audience, presents early recollections of discrimination against Blacks in both Nova Scotia and Dresden, Ontario.

Although Viola Desmond’s Canada comes across as three distinct works in one, it remains an important volume in the history of Blacks in Canada, and of racial prejudice that is a blight in Canada’s social history. The primary materials reproduced challenge students to use historical documents to inform their understanding of the past. The extensive references and additional online resources identified in the “Teacher’s Guide” direct readers and teachers to many repositories and museums that are digitizing their holdings and facilitating new research and study.


— Canadian Review of Materials, May 2016



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