HALIFAX: It is a very well known piece of Canadian tradition.
Viola Desmond’s arrest on November 8, 1946 for refusing to leave the all-white section of a movie theater in New Glasgow, NS, galvanized the province’s black community and helped inspire a country’s civil rights movement.
After all, it appears on the Canadian ten dollar bill. A banknote, by the way, cited by the International Bank Note Society in 2018 as the best currency in the world.
As Canadians celebrate the 75th anniversary of that arrest, it is now widely recognized that Desmond’s legal fight against those charges paved the way for the end of segregation in Nova Scotia and shed light on racism in Canada.
But it is a lesser-known piece in the same tradition that, five years before that pivotal moment in Canadian racial history, in 1941, another black woman sat with her son, in the same section of the same theater.
She was also arrested and charged.
Her name was Carrie Best, and although she also lost her subsequent racial discrimination lawsuit against the Roseland Theater and its owner, a few years later, she would start The Clarion, unapologetically, just “Posted in the interest of Nova Scotians from colour”. the second black-owned and published newspaper in the province. She ran the newspaper for a decade.
And when she saw the same thing happening to Viola Desmond in the same theater, she used the front pages of The Clarion to advocate for Desmond as she continued her court case, on her way to becoming a Canadian human rights icon and a inspiration for generations of black Canadians.
And it’s even been suggested that without Best’s dogged activism, we might not see Desmond’s face on our coin.
Carrie Best was one of Canada’s most prominent human rights activists – a blaze of fire, a fighter, and a force of nature. She was a poet, journalist and editor, broadcaster and author, and she had a great influence on countless black people in Nova Scotia and beyond.
She was charismatic and, for those who inevitably gathered around her, she was a fierce defender of human rights, not only for the black community, but also for the indigenous community.
And in Nova Scotia, at that time, there was always a fight to have.
“She found a cause, wrote about it, and tried to give people a voice who might not otherwise have it,” says Jamie Best, Best’s grandson.
Here is the story, as it is passed down from generation to generation.
A few weeks before Best’s arrest, a pair of young black women were kicked out of the Roseland and told their story.
Best took up his cause.
When the letters to the owner failed, Carrie took her son, Calbert, 15, and went to the theater herself in December 1941, sat in the all-white section and refused to leave.
“If I had to put money into it, she knew exactly what she was doing when she came in, and she was probably looking to fight, because it’s not like she doesn’t grow up in New Glasgow and doesn’t.” know the rules in quotes, ”says his grandson.
Best’s subsequent lawsuit, which specifically mentioned racial profiling, failed. The judge ruled that a landlord’s right to exclude anyone superseded any problem of racism. Best was ordered to pay the defendant’s costs.
He saw the same thing happen to Viola Desmond and took up his cause in the pages of The Clarion.
And because Desmond was a big-city businesswoman, Best’s words reached beyond New Glasgow, Halifax, and beyond.
“I think she certainly brought the case to light by writing about it,” says Jamie. “If she hadn’t written about it, would someone else have written about it? I dont know.”
At best, there was always a cause.
Jamie remembers going to visit his grandmother every summer as a child. On one such visit, he took it with him when he went to visit an Indian reservation in Cape Breton. Remember to be shocked by the living conditions on the reservations, by the dirt floors of the houses.
These were the topics her grandmother was writing about in the pages of her newspaper.
“When she took up a cause. He took it on with complete conviction, ”says granddaughter Christene Best, Calbert’s daughter.
“I’ve seen her manipulate a ballroom full of 1,500 people just by speaking in a low voice. She was pretty amazing. “
“She really became an activist journalist. And that was his passion, particularly fighting bigger opponents. In her own way, she was a pit bull. “
She was made a member of the Order of Canada and received a pair of honorary doctorates, first from St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, NS, and later from King’s College University in Halifax.
He was born in New Glasgow in 1903, and died peacefully 98 years later, in the same house in which he was born.
While conducting The Clarion, Best, finding that the rock music of the day was not to his liking, also began broadcasting a radio show, The quiet corner, in 1952. There, he read poetry between music segments, mainly classical and religious. This program was developed for 12 years in four maritime stations. And for seven years, he wrote a weekly column called “Human Rights” in the Pictou Advocate.
She was also known for wearing elegant hats.
To Christene, she was Nannie Carrie, whose home they visited every summer, who baked the most wonderful bread and took them across the street to the market.
There was a huge garden at the back of the house, where Best grew vegetables and gooseberries, and a tree at the back of the lot, where the children went to pick the cherries while Best told them stories.
In fact, Christene’s favorite memories of her grandmother are not from the fierce activist, but from Nannie Carrie who visited her in Toronto in the late 1980s, when Best would have been 80 years old.
“I came home from work and she would have made (chicken and pork chops) and it was just a little individual visit that we had that was just lovely,” Christene recalls. “And she wasn’t particularly shaken by whatever business would have brought her to Toronto, we just have to have a good time one on one.”
Nova Scotia filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton, whose work focuses on Nova Scotia Africans and women in particular, met Best when she was young. It was in the 1970s, when they both participated in organizations that advocated for the rights of black women.
“I was inspired by his courage, his wit, his public speaking and his example,” says Hamilton, who is also a professor at King’s College School of Journalism.
The Clarion’s best start in post-WWII Nova Scotia, Hamilton says, was a remarkable feat for a woman of African descent at the time.
“His life proved that social change is possible but it comes with dedication, hard work and sacrifice. … She was passionate about human rights and believed that journalists had a duty to expose the effects of injustice when reporting ”.
“She demonstrated what is possible with courage, determination and compassion. For young women of all backgrounds, it showed that if there is no path, make your own. “
Unsurprisingly, perhaps it was the woman herself who best summarized her path, her progress, and her legacy.
In 1988, then 85 years old, he spoke in front of the Donald Marshall Investigation, which investigated the e of racism in the judicial system as a result of the wrongful death conviction of the man from Mi’kmaq, Donald Marshall Jr.
In his presentation to the research, Best spoke of the time, 45 years ago, when he was trying to start The Clarion.
She had come to Halifax, “a young woman with a dream” to recruit advertisers. One of his first stops was Mr. Manuel Zive, a Jewish merchant.
“I told him that I wanted to have something to say about racial understanding, because things were not going well. He told me: ‘You are just a little voice crying in the desert, but it keeps crying.’
He went back to his office and wrote him a check.
Best’s words were meant for Zive and investigation, but he might have been speaking to everyone who might follow his path, who might one day wonder if the effort and sacrifice are worth what’s at the end of the road.
“I am still crying in the desert,” he said. “But I’m not crying alone anymore.”