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  

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Winner of the 2017 Robbie Robertson Dartmouth Book Award for Non-Fiction! The Miramichi Reader’s best non-fiction book of 2016

In 1946, Viola Desmond was wrongfully arrested for sitting in a whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. In 2010, the Nova Scotia Government recognized this gross miscarriage of justice and posthumously granted her a free pardon.

Most Canadians are aware of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a racially segregated bus in Alabama, but Viola Desmond’s act of resistance occurred nine years earlier. However, many Canadians are still unaware of Desmond’s story or that racial segregation existed throughout many parts of Canada during most of the twentieth century. On the subject of race, Canadians seem to exhibit a form of collective amnesia. Viola Desmond’s Canada is a groundbreaking book that provides a concise overview of the narrative of the Black experience in Canada. Reynolds traces this narrative from slavery under French and British rule in the eighteenth century to the practice of racial segregation and the fight for racial equality in the twentieth century. Included are personal recollections by Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond’s youngest sister, together with important but previously unpublished documents and other primary sources in the history of Blacks in Canada.

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“Reynolds’ book is a significant and timely contribution to the burgeoning field of African Canadian history and social justice studies. I thank him for writing this book.”

— Afua Cooper, James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies,  Dalhousie University

“An impressive book that tackles much more than the experience of Viola Desmond. Reynolds’ work is a wide-ranging discussion of the broad themes of slavery, race, segregation and historical memory.”

— Harvey Amani Whitfield, University of Vermont

  • EPUB
  • ISBN: 9781552668566
  • March 2016
  • $29.99
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  • ISBN: 9781552668573
  • March 2016
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  • “An important volume in the history of Blacks in Canada, and of racial prejudice that is a blight in Canada’s social history.”

    — Canadian Review of Materials, May 2016 (full review)

  • …fascinating, informative reading.

    — The Mirimachi Reader (full review)

  • “Reynolds explores a dark chapter of Canada’s past, much of which is eye-opening and disturbing.”

    — Winnipeg Free Press, February 2016 (full review)

  • “This book shines a long overdue spotlight on Desmond’s case but also the centuries-long history of racial discrimination and de facto segregation in places like Nova Scotia, noting the fact that Canadians seem to exhibit a form of collective amnesia of our racist past.”

    — Canadian Journal of History (full review)


  • Foreword: Towards That Elusive Just Society (George Elliott Clarke)
  • Introduction
  • Part I. A Narrative History
  • A Narrative of Race in Canadian History from Slavery to the Underground Railroad
  • The Many Faces of Jim Crow: Racial Segregation in Canada 1880–1960
  • My Early Memories of Race, My Sister Viola and My Journey of Self-Discovery (Wanda Robson)
  • Part II. A Documentary History
  • Marie Marguerite Rose: What Her Inventory of Material Possessions Tells Us About Slavery and Freedom in Eighteenth-Century New France
  • West Indian Immigration to Canada 1900–1920: What the Census Figures Don’t Tell Us
  • The Culture of Racism in Canada: Burning Crosses, Blackened-Faced Actors and Minstrel Shows
  • Pearleen Oliver: Pioneer in the Fight to End Racial Discrimination
  • Epilogue
  • Appendix: The Promised Land Project Symposium Round Table Discussion
  • References
  • Index


  • Graham Reynolds

    Graham Reynolds is a professor emeritus and the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice at Cape Breton University.He is the author (with Wanda Robson) of Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land, winner of the 2017 Robbie Robertson Atlantic Book Award for Non-Fiction.

  • George Elliott Clarke

    George Elliott Clarke is an award-winning playwright and poet. He is currently serving as the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate (January 2016).

  • Wanda Robson

    Wanda Robson is well known local community educator, author, and the youngest sister of the Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond. She is longtime resident of North Sydney, Nova Scotia, where she resides with her husband Joe. In 2004, at the age of 77, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of completing a university education when she received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cape Breton University. Following graduation, Wanda began a campaign to raise public awareness about her sister Viola and the struggle for racial equality in Canada. In 2010, she published Sister to Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada’s Rosa Parks. She has given numerous public and school presentations and has been interviewed many times by local and national media.

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