On February 7, 2022, Canada lost a civil rights advocate, dynamic spokesperson and radiant personality. Wanda Robson, the youngest sister to Viola Desmond, died at age 95 leaving behind a legacy of determination, kindness and generosity
As Black History Month comes to an end, RBC honours Wanda Robson and her sister Viola Desmond, whose story she championed for decades. As civil rights activists who fought for justice and equality in their own ways, the work of these two extraordinary women is something that all Canadians can reflect upon over the year ahead.
Wanda Robson was the youngest sister of the late civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond, a woman who challenged the practice of racial segregation in a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia movie theatre in 1946. Desmond, who was Black, was arrested for refusing to leave a whites-only section of the cinema – she was consequently arrested, jailed overnight and convicted without representation for an obscure tax offense. Her fight against injustice helped end segregation in Nova Scotia – and her sister’s determined mission helped bring Viola’s story to light.
“As the youngest sister of Viola, Wanda made it her mission to share her story,” says Colleen Doyle, RBC Branch Manager in North Sydney, Nova Scotia who had a close relationship with Wanda and her husband Joe. “It was her personality to want the story out there – she was just so proud to talk about Viola.”
Beyond raising awareness for her Viola’s courageous act, Wanda’s hope was to have her sister exonerated. As a result of Wanda’s work, in 2010 the Nova Scotia legislature granted Viola a Royal Prerogative of Mercy posthumous free pardon, the first issued in Canada. Lieutenant Governor Maryann Francis, a Black woman herself, granted the pardon. In a video featured at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, she said “It took 65 years for a woman of colour to free another woman of colour.”
Wanda’s work wasn’t done there. Thanks to her efforts, in 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Viola Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to be featured on the face of a banknote. On November 19, 2018, the $10 note was unveiled, showcasing Viola along with a map of the North End of Halifax, where she lived and worked, and an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
An activist in her own right
In addition to being known as Viola Desmond’s youngest sister, Wanda Robson was a prominent community educator, author and champion for civil rights. She was also known for her spirit, determination and relentless energy. In 2004, at the age of 76, she graduated from Cape Breton University with a Bachelor of Arts degree, fulfilling her life-long dream of pursuing a university education. There, she became a friend and mentor to many, and an honorary doctorate recipient. In 2010, she wrote the autobiography Sister to Courage to honour her sister’s memory and for decades was an active spokesperson, speaking at dozens of schools in Nova Scotia and across the country. Well into her eighties, she passionately shared Viola’s story and raised awareness of her impact and contributions.
An activist in her own right, Robson’s public service also included three terms on the Nova Scotia Advisory Council for the Status of Women and served in a number of leadership roles for Girl Guides of Canada over a 25-year period. In 2021, she was named to the Order of Nova Scotia as a pillar of the African Nova Scotian community.
Like so many social justice advocates, Wanda believed in the ideal of 'someday.' That fueled her and ensured that Canada's history was fully told. Wanda helped us understand that truth, no matter how ugly, can unite us in common cause toward greater inclusion. She reminded us that we cannot remedy the issues that we do not talk about. - Mark Beckles, VP Social Impact and Innovation, RBC.
In 2021, Cape Breton University (CBU) announced the Wanda Robson Scholarship, established through a generous donation from the Jeannine Deveau Achievement Fund to support African Nova Scotian students at CBU. “It was at the donor’s request that we name this scholarship after Wanda, because of the strong alignment of values,” explains Sara Burke, Vice President Development at Cape Breton University. “Her hard work and dedication to education and social justice is something that African Nova Scotian students can look to for inspiration and motivation in their own journeys.”
It was beyond fitting to name the scholarship after Wanda, who was moved by the decision. “To be in the room on the day we told Wanda that this scholarship would be named in her honour was a day I will never forget,” adds Burke. “For so many years, she told her sister’s story of perseverance and resilience. Now, we get to share Wanda’s story and legacy through this scholarship and her connection with Cape Breton University.” The scholarship will be awarded every year to an African Nova Scotian who exemplifies leadership qualities through community involvement, student activities or athletics.
Without Wanda’s efforts, there would be no curation of Viola’s history or $10 note featuring her fight for justice. Wanda is celebrated for her resolve and actions to bring the story to light. At the same time, she is remembered for her kindness, generosity, determination and mischievous sense of humour.
Appropriately, Wanda’s favourite song was A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke. She has been quoted as saying “Change is gonna come. We have to be patient. Never give up. Never give up.” Wanda is a shining example that through persistence, energy and an unshakable mission, change can come indeed.
For those who wish to honour Wanda Robson, donations can be made to “The Wanda Robson Scholarship” at Cape Breton University cbu.ca/donor/donate-now/
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