All in the family – sisters and role models

Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond portrait, ca. 1940. Communications Nova Scotia (via Bank of Canada)

Daring. Courageous. Risk-taker. These are all words that can be used to describe Viola Desmond, who’ll be featured on the new Canadian $10 bank note. In 1946, the Nova Scotia business woman refused to leave a whites-only area of a movie theater. Desmond’s court case was the first known legal challenge against racial segregation brought forth by a black woman in Canada.

When it would have been easier to sit down and stay quiet, Desmond stood up and spoke out for equality – facing arrest and conviction as a result. Her act of courage and defiance continues to resonate with girls and women across Canada.

A trailblazer in her time, Desmond is an icon today – and her sister Wanda Robson, who’s mentored countless girls as a longtime member of Girl Guides of Canada–Guides du Canada, is proudly keeping her legacy alive. Robson became a member when her daughter came home from school asking to be a Brownie. Robson enrolled her daughter in Brownies, thinking that meant she would have a few hours a week to spend alone at the library. After about three weeks, her daughter’s Guider asked if she could help out with the unit. She didn’t get the alone time, but still refers to the day she was asked to join Girl Guides as “my lucky day.” Guiding became such a part of her life that her family refers to it as “one of her other homes.”

Viola Desmond and Wanda Robson

Wanda and Viola at the Hi-Hat Club, Boston, ca. 1950. (via Bank of Canada)

When asked what drew her to join and remain in Guiding, Wanda talks about finding a place that she felt comfortable and accepted. She loves the interaction with the girls, watching them come out of their shells and their sense of achievement when they accomplish something. Reminiscing about her time in Guiding she talks about the way girls throw their arms around each other when they complete a challenge and how the older girls are such role models for younger girls.

“Once you are a member, you are always a member,” Wanda says of her unwavering commitment to Guiding. The value of Guiding to today’s girls is very real, she emphasizes. “The Guiding Movement makes young girls realize who they are, their potential, that they aren’t just in the background. It gives them a foundation of knowing who they are and that ‘I can do that’… I marvel at what Guiding has to offer girls. It gives them such confidence.”

At the unveiling of the new $10 bank note, Wanda Robson spoke about her sister Viola Desmond. Pictured (from left to right) Bill Morneau, Minister of Finance, Stephen S. Poloz, Governor of the Bank of Canada, Patty Hajdu, Minister of Status of Women and Wanda Robson. (Courtesy Bank of Canada)

Guest post by Catherine Miller-Mort, who works in the archives at Girl Guides of Canada’s national office.   

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