Community not pleased with the state of street honoring Viola Desmond

Viola Irene Desmond

Some members of New Glasgow’s Black community are upset with the state of a street named to honour Viola Desmond.

Nearly half the street, if not more, is covered by a restaurant patio, and it’s been that way for the past two years.

A portion of the street beside the old Roseland Theatre was renamed Viola’s Way five years ago.

The street, approximately 50 metres in length, has been closed to cars since the patio was installed. There are benches and garbage bins in the middle of the street.

Some say a permanent patio should never have been allowed.

“There are literally people looking down on you if the patio is full,” said Angela Cromwell, a hairdresser in New Glasgow who says she owes her success to Desmond, who was also a hairdresser. “It’s not a very satisfying feeling about the space that was given to us.

“I believe that that is not the reason that Viola stood her ground.”

Desmond, a civil rights icon in Canada, was arrested in 1946 while watching a movie on the floor level of the theatre. The theatre was segregated with floor seating for white people only. Black people were relegated to the balcony.

Viola’s Way

Cromwell says the street went to the highest bidder and it wasn’t the Black community. But she said the owner of the restaurant is not to blame.

“He has no idea,” said Cromwell. “He really doesn’t. But I think the town needs to be more responsible for how that worked and that’s when you get to ‘it’s all about who you know.'”

New Glasgow Mayor Nancy Dicks said there was never a formal request for Viola’s Way to be used as a sacred space for the Black community to congregate and host events, as some have suggested.

Dicks said the vision for the street is that it becomes a place where the community can share Desmond’s story. She said the town is working with the province on that vision.

She said the road is not permanently closed. The street is closed for cars but it is open for pedestrians.

Luke Macleod of New Glasgow said that while on the street he didn’t even know he was walking on Viola’s Way.

Viola’s Way

“I walk down here because I thought it was just a little side street,” he said. “Learning that it was Viola’s Way blew my mind.”

He said there’s a big bouquet of flowers covering the street name.

The artwork on the side of the street is an initiative of MacGillivray Law. The company bought the former theatre in 2016 and has since used it as a retail space.

MacGillivray Law held a contest calling artists across Canada to submit art inspired by Viola Desmond after it purchased the building.

Eighteen pieces of artwork and a fabricated film reel tell the story of Viola Desmond along with the history of the Roseland Theatre. 

While walking on the street, history major Becca Field said she expected more to be done to commemorate the woman who became the face of Canada’s $10 bill in 2018.

“It is surprising,” she said. “You would feel it would be more memorialized instead of having a couple of benches and half the street blocked off by a patio. This isn’t enough.”