Accrediting Carrie M. Best
By: Kiran Bal
Canadian history has documented the way in which a young, brave Black woman by the name of Viola Desmond pushed back against racial segregation by refusing to sit in the “Black section” of a theater she frequented. Many poems and short films about Desmond’s life have either been written, or are in the works. However, the accuracy behind whether or not Desmond was the initial trailblazer against racial segregation in the theater has proven to be not so accurate. In Constance Backhouse’s article “I was Unable to Identify with Topsy” Backhouse wrote about a woman named Carrie. M. Best who brought a lawsuit against racial segregation in Nova Scotia to court four years prior to Desmond after Best experienced the same racial discrimination. The Backhouse paper reported on an eventful court case that has been buried in Canadian legal archives for many years. In 1942, Carrie Best brought an action against a Nova Scotia theatre, charging the owners with overt racial discrimination in a public place.
In December of 1941, Norman Mason apparently decided it was time to respect the racist complaints of some of his White patrons who felt as though African-Canadians and Whites should be seated separately (after years of having so seating arrangements). He instructed the staff of the Roseland Theatre to insist that a new seating policy be implemented, and when several African-Canadian high school girls refused to comply, he had them forcibly ejected from the theatre. When Carrie Best learned what had happened, the forty-one year old woman resolved to take action. (Best v. Mason and Roseland Theatre, 1942). Her first strategy was to go to the theatre in person and insist that the discriminatory policy be dropped. When this failed, she wrote a letter to theatre-owner Norman Mason directly. In clear and forceful language, she recounted what had transpired, laid out her arguments against the discrimination, and demanded a change in policy. Best would actively attend the theatre and refuse to sit in the balcony seats that were designated for coloured people—as a result she was consistently thrown out of the theatre.
In 1941, there were no Canadian statutes expressly prohibiting racial segregation in public facilities. The first such legislation would not appear until 1947, when the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights Act, Canada's first comprehensive human rights statute, outlawed discrimination in hotels, restaurants, theatres, business ventures, employment, housing and education.
Best ended up taking Mason and the theatre to court only to lose her case. The preceding Judge Graham conceded that theatres advertised their services generally to the public. However, it was his view that "the management had the right to exclude anyone from the theatre." Theatres were no different from private dwellings, as far as Judge Graham was concerned. "The ordinary citizen had the right to exclude anyone from their home unless a contract had been entered into," he stated before urging the jury to disregard any other questions raised in the litigation. All else was "irrelevant. Frustrated but not defeated Best took up a career in journalism, going on to start The Clarion newspaper and through her passionate writing and active resistance against racial segregation she won many awards and acknowledgements of public service. Four years later when Viola Desmond experienced the same prejudice, Best helped her formulate her case. Desmond, unlike Best, won her case, which is perhaps why her story has been better documented—her story and victory illustrates a progressive stride for Black Canadians whereas Best’s case is an example of the oppressive discriminatory nature of legislation in Canada that is forgotten in Canadian history. In spite of the fact that the fights of both of these women are equally valid and both helped to ameliorate racist segregation by making valid contributions to the community, it is important to create an accurate timeline of Black Canadian history and appoint credit to all Black women who fought for equality and justice in order to create a more complete and accurate reiteration of Black Canadian history.
The link below is an example of the way Viola Desmond’s story has been documented in a Canadian Heritage Moment:
Constance Backhouse Article: