Chloe Cooley & Viola Desdmond: Women Who Changed Canadian History & Law

February is Black History Month. Throughout the month, the WLMP will be spotlighting, posting information, links and/or content about the contributions of Black women in recognition and celebration.

Chloe Cooley — Abolition of Slavery in Upper Canada
Chloe Cooley helped bring about the end of slavery in Canada. She lived in Queenston in Upper Canada. However, on March 14, 1793 Sergeant Vrooman, a slave owner, forcibly confined her, tied up her up, and threw her into a boat. His plan was to cross the Niagara River and sell Ms. Cooley in New York State. After all, she was his property.

According to historical documents, Ms. Cooley loudly resisted and struggled. Her screams were heard by Peter Martin, a freeman and Black Loyalist, and William Grisley, who Mr. Martin brought along to witness Ms. Cooley being violently taken and processed for export. They told Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe and the Executive Council of Upper Canada what happened.

As a result,the Executive Council of Upper Canada brought charges against Sergeant Vrooman for disturbing the peace. He petitioned against the charges, which were eventually dropped. The fact that Chloe Cooley and other Black persons were considered property and didn’t have any rights in prompted Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe to act.

In June 1793, Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe introduced legislation to limit slavery in Upper Canada. Chloe Cooley’s resistance to being exported for sale brought about the creation of An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and Limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude; more commonly known by its short title Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe gave Royal Assent to the bill in 1793.

While not much is known about Chloe Cooley before 1793, thanks to her resistance the importation of slaves in Upper Canada was abolished. However, slavery remained legal in Canada until August 1834, when Britain abolished slavery through the British Empire.

Viola Desmond — Leader, Civil Libertarian and Activist
Viola Desmond was a well know business woman and community leader. But it’s her activism and courage that she is best known for and remembered.

On November 8, 1946, Ms. Desmond decided to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia while she waited for her car to be fixed. She asked for a main floor seat ticket. But the ticket seller gave her a balcony ticket, which was the area reserved for non-white movie goers. At this time, the Roseland Theatre segregated its audiences.

Ms. Desmond walked into the main floor seating area and sat down. She was confronted by the usher. That’s when she realized that the ticket seller had refused to sell her a main floor ticket. Ms. Desmond was told to sit upstairs. She refused.

The police were called. Ms. Desmond was then dragged out. She sustained injuries to her hip and knee from being forcibly removed and was jailed. She was then arrested and held overnight.

The next day, Ms. Desmond appeared in court and was charged with attempting to defraud the Nova Scotia government. The basis for the charge was an “alleged refusal to pay a once cent amusement tax” or the difference in the tax between the main floor and balcony seating areas.

Throughout her trial she was denied a defense lawyer. No Crown attorney was present and only Magistrate Roderick MacKay was there. The judge fined her $26.00. Six dollars were awarded to the manager of the Roseland Theatre.

Rather than let the injustice rest, Ms. Desmond launched a suit. Her lawyer, Frederick Bissett who took her case pro bono, applied to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court of Justice to have her criminal conviction set aside. Unfortunately, Maynard Brown Archibald J. ruled against her and the case was dropped. Viola Desmond was not pardoned until 2010, when Nova Scotia government apologized and granted her a posthumous free pardon.

However, Viola Desmond took the first step in challenging segregation in Nova Scotia. By 1954, segregation was illegal.

For more on Viola Desmond, we highly recommend Professor Constance Backhouse’s book Colour-Coded a Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950.

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