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TORONTO – Three women of Jamaican heritage and one Antiguan national, who, through their accomplishments stand as positive images of black women, were recently honoured by the Ryerson University in Canada.

At the third annual Viola Desmond Day celebration held recently at Ryerson's Victoria Street campus, the four were presented with awards named after black women, who have made significant contributions in Canada.

Seventeen year-old Jaicyea Smith, a student at Earl Haig High School, was recognised with the award in honour of civil rights icon Viola Desmond who, in 1946 at the age of 32, was arrested for sitting in a whites-only section of a cinema in the Canadian city of New Glasgow in the province of Nova Scotia. Jaicyea volunteers with the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP) Awareness Committee and The Scott Mission. 

Four-year Ryerson nursing student, Shantae Johns received the Mattie Hayes award, named for the slave from Georgia in the Unites States, who settled in Saskatchewan with several generations of her family and started a negro colony. Johns, who migrated from Jamaica seven years ago,is the President of the United Black Students at Ryerson (UBSR) and is working on a pilot project, which addresses the lack of diversity in nursing leadership. She has aspirations to be a medical lawyer.

Ryerson’s Athletics Event Co-ordinator, Shauna Bookal was presented with the Marie Marguerite Rose Award named for the slave, who married a native Indian after she was freed and together they opened a tavern.  Rose was also a cook, a seamstress, and made her own soap and preserves.

The only black woman in sports management at a post-secondary level in Ontario, Ms. Bookal co-ordinates all game day promotions, sponsorships and the department’s community outreach programmes.  She has a Bachelors degree in Sport Management from Brock University, a Sport Business Management Graduate Certificate from Durham College, and a Master of Science degree in Sport Management from West Virginia University. 

An award-winning author and university professor, Antiguan-born Dr. Althea Prince isthe recipient of the award named after Kay Livingstone, who founded the Congress of Black Women Canada in 1971. She died suddenly three years later while returning from Mexico.

Viola Desmond’s 84-year old sister Wanda Robson, who attended the ceremony, told the story of her sister, who is known as Canada’s Rosa Parks. She said that Desmond was passing through New Glasgow from Halifax, when her car broke down.  Having to spend the night in town, she went to the cinema to watch a movie not knowing that there was an unspoken rule that blacks were only to sit in the balcony section.

“You see, she was short, only four feet, ten inches tall, and always sat downstairs in Halifax.  When they told her to move, she went to purchase the right ticket to sit downstairs and they refused to sell her that ticket, so she went and sat back downstairs,” Ms. Robson related.

Ms. Desmond was forcibly removed from the theatre by the police, thrown in jail and charged with trying to defraud the government of a one cent amusement tax, the difference in price between the downstairs section and the balcony-level.  She tried to fight her conviction and took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, but lost.

In 2010, more than 60 years after the incident and 45 years after she had died, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia granted Viola Desmond a pardon posthumously, the first time ever in the history of Canada.

Ms. Robson, who has written a book about her sister’s life called, ‘Sister to Courage: Stories from the Life of Viola Desmond’, urged the audience to always stand up and fight against injustice.

The Viola Desmond Day awards ceremony was organised by Ryerson's Black History Awareness Committee.

 

By CAROLYN GOULBOURNE-WARREN