Viola Desmond celebrated at Ryerson awards
May 24, 2018
Law school was on her radar when Dr. Emily Agard changed course and pursued science for fun.
Very few will question her decision.
Passionate about making science accessible, engaging and inclusive of all groups, the Ryerson University science outreach leader was celebrated at the 10th annual Viola Desmond Awards banquet on May 11.
“It’s a reminder of the privilege I have to be in a position to impact change,” Agard said of the honour. “I have always had that sense of inquiry and solving problems and my parents, even though they majored in the humanities, taught me the scientific method.”
She’s the university’s first director of science communication, outreach & public engagement and an advocate for females in science.
“Girls are already interested in science,” said Agard who was recognized with the Dean’s Teaching Award in 2013. “It’s a matter of supporting them when they are here so they don’t want to leave. Sometimes, the environment is not as welcoming or inclusive. So when I meet with girls, I talk to them about my challenges and successes. I let them know science can be rewarding if they stick with it.”
Dr. Imogen Coe nominated Agard for the award.
“She’s a phenomenal role model, activist, participant and engaged member of the community, both within Ryerson University and beyond as a role model, science communicator, facilitator and connector, bringing kids from marginalized communities to participate in science activities at Ryerson,” said Coe who is the founding dean of the faculty of science and a professor in the department of chemistry and biology. “She is a mentor and adviser for many young people, particularly women who don’t see themselves reflected in career pathways ahead of them. She has done this very quietly and persistently because it’s the right thing to do.”
The Viola Desmond Awards are named after Black Canadian trailblazers who were also recognized at the event.
Agard was the recipient of the Vivian Barbot Staff Award.
Born in Haiti and educated in France, Barbot arrived in Quebec in 1967 and was an educator before becoming a Member of Parliament for Papineau and the Bloc Quebecois vice-president and interim president.
For Dr. Melanie Knight who is bilingual and has taught in both official languages, being bestowed with the Dr. Malinda Smith Faculty Award is significant.
“For many of us, there is a lot of invisibility and you just go about doing what you are doing without anyone recognizing it,” she noted. “When you are honoured, it means a lot. It speaks to the fact that what you do matters.”
Armed with an undergraduate degree in psychology & biology from the University of New Brunswick and graduate degrees in sociology from the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Knight is an associate professor and undergraduate program director in Ryerson’s sociology department.
Her mother – Vicky Knight was a teacher in New Brunswick – was the inspiration to become an educator.
“There’s also something about seeing in students’ eyes curiosity, interest, intrigue and challenge,” added Knight who, in the last 15 years has researched the business life-cycle progression of Black women entrepreneurs, the barriers they face, their unique assets and the ways in which they develop these assets in an effort to create successful businesses and sustainable livelihoods. “That’s very exciting.”
A tenured professor since 2009, Knight said Ryerson is a welcoming environment.
“My department, the university and the dean have been immensely supportive,” she added. “You need that in order to do the work that you want to do. You want to have people who are allies and an environment that’s conducive to creating change.”
Dr. Nicole Neverson was Knight’s nominator.
“In her role in the department of sociology as the undergraduate program director, she provides rich, textured, critical and reflective service,” said Neverson who was the 2014 Faculty Award winner. “The role isn’t only administrative. It involves having an empathetic ear when it comes to dealing with student issues. She has been not just an inspiration to and for young Black women in our program, but she has helped them navigate a curriculum that doesn’t always centre their experiences in the social world.”
Smith, the faculty award honouree, is a political science professor at the University of Alberta and a former Bahamian field hockey player.
Susanne Nyaga, who is completing her undergraduate degree in social work, was presented with the Mayann Francis Student Award.
Last year, the aspiring human rights lawyer became the first Black woman president of Ryerson Students’ Union. She is also the Canadian Federation of Students, Ontario racialized constituency representative.
Francis was just nine months old when Desmond -- a Halifax beauty shop owner -- refused to sit in a New Glasgow theatre balcony section designated for Blacks in 1946. Instead, she sat on the ground floor reserved for White patrons.
She had gone to the Roseland theatre to pass time while her car was being repaired.
After being forcibly removed from the theatre and arrested, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket and fined $20 and $6 in theatre court costs.
When efforts to overturn the conviction at higher levels of court failed, Desmond closed the business, moved to Montreal and enrolled in a business college. She eventually settled in New York where she died in 1965 at age 51.
During her tenure as Nova Scotia’s first Black lieutenant governor, Francis -- on the advice of the executive council -- exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to grant a free pardon which is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was an error.
That is the only time that a free pardon has been posthumously granted in Canada.
“I didn’t become aware of Viola until my late 20s through my very good friend Bev Mascoll,” said Francis. “Bev talked about her because she was influenced by Viola who was influenced by Madam C.J Walker (she was the first female American self-made millionaire). Little did I know I was going to give her a pardon. Righting the wrong with the stroke of a pen was a very moving experience. It made me feel both good and sad and I always say I freed my sister.”
In addition to being a beautician and business owner, Desmond was a mentor for young Black women through the Desmond School of Beauty.
“Viola was a very smart woman with a dream and vision,” said Francis who, on May 14, was the recipient of an honourary degree from Acadia University. “Just imagine what she could have achieved had she not encountered this devastating act of racism. I do believe this one act changed her life and psychologically broke her spirit. We are celebrating her now and her story needs to be told over and over and over again. It will be because she’s on our $10 bill.
Desmond is the first Canadian female on the face of a banknote.
Established five years ago, the Viola Desmond bursary is presented annually to a student t who self-identifies as female and Black, African or African-Canadian and is enrolled in a degree or certificate program at Ryerson University in the following academic year.
Third-year computer science student Deborah Mepaiyeda was the bursary recipient.
The Ryerson Student Award and bursary winners also receive a cash prize that is donor-funded.
Pamela Appelt, the patron of this year’s Ryerson University Viola Desmond Awards celebration, and Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP provided leadership gifts of $5,000.
Grade 12 student Shanique Peart was the recipient of the Viola Desmond Award presented to a graduating high school student.
Dr. Denise O’Neil Green, Ryerson’s vice-president for equity & community inclusion, said the annual awards make the invisible visible.
“What I mean is that the contributions of Black women, specifically Black Canadian women, are often hidden in plain sight,” she said. “What these awards do is acknowledge and bring to light the wonderful trailblazing and innovative ‘shero’ work that is done by members within and beyond the Ryerson community.”