CBU, Cape Breton in the vanguard of Social Justice
A number of events in recent weeks have brought issues of social justice to the fore in Cape Breton. Not the least of which was the conviction of two young men in Hants County, Nova Scotia for criminal harassment and inciting hatred following a cross burning this past February.
An important event was held at the end of October when Philip Riteman spoke at CBU of his life and experiences as a holocaust survivor and as a new Canadian after WWII. The classroom that had been booked for the event slowly but steadily filled to well over capacity, and at the last minute, the venue was changed to the RBC lecture theatre. There, the audience of students, instructors and members of the public of all ages heard Riteman’s personal account the war in Eastern Europe and its aftermath, as well as warnings to live with respect and tolerance for each other, and to engender these traits in the next generation.
In addition, November 20th is National Child Day, which recognizes the adoption of both the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) in Canada. It is a day to celebrate and honour children as valued members of our society and for just being themselves. Events are planned across Canada including CBU. In honour of National Child Day, and to recognize the outstanding effort by the students of 6c at Greenfield Elementary, a selection of their recent work has been included in this issue.
Arguably the most significant event in the recent social justice happenings came on November 8th, 2010 at Sydney Academy. CBU and the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board joined to announce Dr. Graham Reynolds as the first holder of the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice and to launch the book, Sister to Courage, by Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson.
In Sister to Courage, Robson weaves a narrative of a strong and supportive family of fifteen that ultimately gives rise to the story of strength and resistance performed by Viola Desmond at the Roseland Theatre in 1946.
A full nine years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Viola Desmond refused to move from the whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. The well-respected businesswoman was arrested and placed in jail. She was charged, not for breaking a law that said she, as a black woman, must not sit downstairs in the theatre, because these types of unspoken rules were not made into law in Canada, but for not paying the difference in tax for the ticket she had been sold for the upstairs section of the theatre, otherwise known as “nigger heaven.”
During Desmond’s arrest, trial and conviction the issue of race was never raised.
Robson is eager to point out that she did not always recognize her sister’s actions as she does today. As a young woman of 19, hearing of her sister’s arrest, she admits, she was embarrassed. It was not until years later, following careers and raising a large family that she began to understand her sister’s actions in the context of human rights and social justice.
Anyone having the pleasure of hearing Wanda Robson speak or having read her book, Sister to Courage, will recognize from her confident, honest and unassuming character that she is a hero in her own right. She credits a course of Dr. Reynolds at CBU for beginning her on a path as student and educator of social justice, a result of which was the posthumous apology and Mercy Free Pardon for Viola Desmond, granted by Nova Scotia Minister of Justice, Ross Landry on April 15, 2010.
Although Cape Breton may seem like an unlikely frontier of social justice, the speakers at the launch on November 8th explain otherwise. The launch began with a panel discussion including Wanda Robson, SA students, Yaeesh Sardiwalla and Neil MacIsaac, CBU student, Kanivannan Chinneah, and Dr. Graham Reynolds who described their understanding of social justice in terms of human rights, equitable treatment, writing the wrongs of the past and recognizing there is much work left to do.
The panel answered questions from the audience of Sydney Academy students, members of the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, and students from the BEd program at CBU among others. The caliber of questions asked and answered by SA students was truly impressive and speaks to the value and quality of social studies education in our region.
As Chair of Social Justice, Dr. Reynolds is planning a Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond Scholarship and will continue to work on texts and curriculum supplements that support the teaching of social justice in the classroom. Effective educational resources such as Robson’s book and classroom supports for teachers are essential in fostering attitudes of respect, tolerance and equity. According to Wanda Robson, education is the most important tool in the campaign for social justice.