Students committed to 'The Viola Desmond Way' at new school bearing her name
May 15, 2019
A bank note bears her image, her star is on Canada’s Walk of Fame at the Halifax Ferry Terminal, a song was written about her and she’s a National Historic Person.
Now added to Viola Desmond’s legacy are two schools that opened in the last eight months.
The Viola Desmond Public School in Ajax was officially unveiled on May 1.
With photographs of students and Black trailblazers plastered on the walls, the visual imagery is the first thing that catches the eyes of first-time visitors entering the state-of-the-art educational institution.
“These images are visible throughout the school and you can feel and hear their voices,” said Ajax High School Principal Eleanor McIntosh. “That’s important because a school should be about students. The images also send a message about the school values, what they believe in and what they are focused on.”
Having a school named after Desmond and its location, McIntosh added, are significant.
“Viola is a role model for many, particularly racialized females,” said the Durham Black Educators Network Co-chair who was born in Ajax and raised in Pickering. “About 80 per cent of the people living in this community are racialized, so I guess the school is in the right place.”
Grade Eight student Mahir Hilal is proud to be among the school’s first cohort.
“I love my school because of the flexible seating and the large learning spaces,” said the aspiring medical doctor who learned about Viola Desmond for the first time a year ago. “When I read about her, this was a strong woman with a lot of courage. I am so happy to be in a school with her name.”
Hilal was a tour guide for some of Desmond’s relatives that reside in Durham.
Dawn Millington, a niece, along with her husband Rodney Millington, their two children and their spouses and two grandchildren, attended the historic event.
“This space is very inventive, beautiful and appealing,” she said. “I wish I had a school like this to attend when I was growing up.”
Millington, who lives in Ajax, read a message sent by her aunt -- Wanda Robson -- who is in North Sydney, Nova Scotia.
“Education is the key that opens many doors,” Robson reminded the students. “…Have fun, learn well and be happy.”
A total of 680 students from junior kindergarten to Grade Eight attend the school that was built with 10 million pounds of concrete.
The opening ceremony featured speeches, the school’s concert band, spoken word and gift presentations.
The Masters of Ceremony were students.
“A school is best exemplified by the students within it,” said Principal Jennifer Brusselers. “Tonight, we are proud to let our students show you who we are. We have taken the impact of Viola Desmond’s life and created a culture we refer to as ‘Doing it the Desmond Way’. Our mission is to create a community of leaders, innovators and allies.”
Some of the students wore West African sashes created by Special Education resource teacher and seamstress Moyah Walker.
“It was important that the main colours of the sash, blue and white, were related to the creativity of our school,” said Vice-principal Tina Thomas who graduated from Pickering High School. “The white symbolizes hope which is what we have for our students to motivate and inspire them on their learning journey to set and attain goals, to build and develop their leadership skills and to provide them with tools to succeed. The blue is symbolic of community. It’s the strength and strong foundation of the community that ensures student achievement and well-being.”
While telling students they should relish their new school, Durham District School Board (DDSB) Chair Michael Barrett emphasized that bricks and mortar don’t define the building.
“It’s about students, teachers, values and education that’s given,” he said. “It’s indeed a sad time when we value education in the sense of dollars without understanding the change, the community that’s inspired and the ability to be able to build a broader community. Instead of just being a celebration today of this building, it is a presentation that represents hopes, dreams and commitments.”
School trustee Patrice Barnes said the name chosen signifies strength, resilience and perseverance.
“In doing so, ‘The Desmond Way’ was born with a vision to create leaders, innovators, creative thinkers and academic achievers,” she said. “We look forward to the many years of great things to come from our students. As leaders of change, we look forward to the years of impact this school will have in our community.”
A day before the unveiling ceremony, the Canadian $10 bill featuring Desmond won the International Bank Note Society Award.
“As we study financial literacy in our classrooms, Viola is represented in our currency connected to our curriculum,” noted DDSB Director of Education Lisa Miller. “We are very proud of that inspired decision to name this wonderful new school after her. We have a responsibility to carry on her legacy.”
Akshaya Thehendram represented her school at an event in Toronto last November to launch the new bank note into circulation.
“I felt so honoured to be part of a great moment in Canadian history and to be at a school named after her,” noted the Grade Eight student. “Doing it ‘The Desmond Way’ means that we create, we are passionate and we are willing to take chances in discovering who we are meant to be.”
Doing it ‘The Desmond Way’, said Jayson Amarh-Dodoo who is in Grade Eight, is more than just a saying.
“It’s a lifestyle that’s key to our success,” he added.
Pat Patrick, one of the new school’s 53 teachers, was ecstatic on learning that he was assigned on contract for a year to the Viola Desmond School.
“It’s a very diverse space that encourages kids voices to be heard,” said the Grade Eight educator who migrated from Trinidad & Tobago 30 years ago and graduated with his Bachelor of Education from Trent University in 2015.
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, Mayann 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.
Through her undeniable courage and bravery, Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard said Desmond is a source of inspiration for many.
“As a proud African Nova Scotian, although I never met Viola, I stand on her shoulders, I remember her name and when I feel weary, I remember ‘The Viola Way’ and get back out there one more time because that is what she did,” pointed out Thomas Bernard whose two grandsons live with their parents in Ajax. “Every Nova Scotian is proud that this new school is named after Viola and it’s truly a strong testament to her incredible legacy.
“It’s a sad state of affairs to say we are still fighting anti-Black racism in Canada today. That’s a reality, but we are fighting with more tools, one of which Viola gave us. That’s the tool that says you stand up, you stand tall and you stand ready to stand for justice. We will continue to fight for justice in this country the ‘Viola Desmond Way’.”
The Viola Desmond Public School in Milton opened on January 8, welcoming 750 students.