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12 January, 2012


Still not too late for my hometown

History is filled with tales of injustice. It is only on rare occasions -with the clarity of hindsight and benefit of careful thought and measured reason - that a society comes together to undo the wrongs of the past.
Sixty-four years after the fact, Viola Desmond was last year offered an apology by the government of Nova Scotia for racial discrimination she was subjected to by the province's justice system.  The report of the belated apology was forwarded to me last week by a Facebook friend who no doubt anticipated my interest.

By means of background, this is Viola's story.

On November 8, 1946, she was driving through New Glasgow, N.S. when her car broke down.  While repairs were being made Viola decided to catch a movie at a nearby theatre.  She bought her ticket and went to sit in the ground level of the theatre, unaware of a policy allowing African-Canadians to sit only in the balcony.  She was told to move and refused as there was no notice of the segregation policy posted in the theatre.

The theatre manager called a policeman and together they physically carried the woman from the theatre, injuring her leg and hip in the process.  She was taken to the local jail and held overnight.  The next day she was brought before a court and charged with tax evasion, of all things.

The "crime" she committed was sitting in the main section of the theatre while paying for a balcony ticket which was cheaper.  The retail tax was calculated based on the ticket price so the authorities decided she owed one cent in tax for the pricier entrance fee.  She was found guilty, fined $20.00 and forced to pay the theatre's six dollars in legal fees.  Viola paid the fine but challenged the decision in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.

She had not been told her rights when arrested, nor informed that she could hire a lawyer or question witnesses during her trial.  Despite these and other errors of law, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction.  The publicity surrounding the case and pressure subsequently applied by the fledgling Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and others, led to the province repealing its segregation laws, but not until 1954.

In delivering the province's apology, Premier Darrell Dexter called Ms. Desmond a visionary, pioneer and Canadian hero.  "On behalf of the Nova Scotia government, I sincerely apologize to Viola Desmond's family and to all African-Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination she was subjected to in November 1946..." he added.  She was also given a royal pardon.

However, all this was too late for the victim.  Not long after the incident she closed her Halifax beauty parlour and moved to New York where she died in 1965 at the age of 50.

Upon reading this sad story, I was immediately reminded of my attempt to generate interest in an apology for African-Canadians who suffered well- documented discrimination in my hometown of Dresden during the first half of the last century.  Reaction to my suggestion in the form of several Letters to the Editor published in the Chatham Daily News was minimal and mixed. Generally, I think, I was considered an excrement disturber who had his nerve in opening old wounds needlessly.  There was an overriding consensus that, if racial discrimination existed all those years ago, it was no longer an issue in the community today.

My contention was that each generation should assume at least partial responsibility for the mistakes of the former and that apology can go a long way toward healing festering ills and deep resentments.  My remarks were directed in particular, to the current regional council of Chatham-Kent which encompasses Dresden.  I still think that I was right in what I attempted to do.

It has been pointed out that one quite striking feature of the politics of the last half-century has been the escalation of demands for redress, issued by groups who see themselves as the victims of historic acts of injustice.  Present-day governments and their citizens are being asked to bear responsibility for the actions and policies of earlier generations, and to take a variety of steps to correct the harm and injustice that they perpetrated.   Not all such demands have been successful, but many have been, and the costs incurred have in some cases been considerable.  The claims in question have been very diverse, both in terms of who is making them and in terms of the acts singled out as standing in need of redress.

So let's return to the question whether the idea of inheriting responsibilities makes sense at all.  Why do we find ourselves pulled in opposite directions on this question, sometimes wanting to affirm and at other times to deny that we can be held responsible for what our ancestors did?  We can understand this, I believe, in terms of a conflict between liberal and communitarian intuitions.

On the liberal side, we are drawn to the idea that we are only implicated in responsibility when as agents we have made some causal contribution to the outcome for which we are being held liable, and behind that stands the idea that we want to be in control of what happens to us: if we are held responsible for what other people, past or present, have done, then in one important respect we lose control of our lives.

On the communitarian side, we find ourselves identifying with other people or other groups of people, and feeling vicarious pride or shame in what they do.   With pride and shame comes responsibility..  Alasdair MacIntyre has expressed this well:

"…we all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, someone else’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation.  Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles.  As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations."

In other words, the communitarian intuition that supports the idea of inherited responsibility runs straight up against the liberal intuition that we can and should choose the relationships from which responsibilities spring, and this intuition is as firmly embedded as the other.

To justify taking responsibility for the past, we need to do more than simply point out that de facto people do often feel pride and shame in what their ancestors have done, and are sometimes willing to bear the resulting ramifications.  We need to find arguments that will support the communitarian intuition, or at least its consequences, to the detriment of the liberal one.

In Dresden's case, I am not so naive as to expect to influence the thinking of those who are too young to remember racial discrimination in their midst.  I had hoped, however, that those in my age bracket who witnessed racial injustices first-hand in the 1930s and '40s, talked about it over the supper table, and felt the helplessness of adolescence in doing anything about it, would now act on hindsight and find it in their hearts to join hands with others of like mind and say to their friends of colour: "I am so sorry for what you and your family had to go through in our time.  On behalf of our generation, and generations past, I apologize."

Unlike the Province of Nova Scotia apologizing for one ugly act of racial discrimination and segregation 64 years ago, we are talking about blanket discrimination for hundreds of blacks in the Town of Dresden for more than a century.  I rest my case.

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