Pictou Advocate sports

Some things are more important


I had a different column planned for this week. In fact, it was written, edited to my satisfaction, and ready to be sent to the Advocate for publication.

But it could wait.

There really are things that take place in our lives that are more important than hockey games and other sports events.

Like many Nova Scotians, many Pictonians, many New Glasgow natives, I couldn’t be satisfied at this particular time if I didn’t address Viola Desmond and the wonderful tribute that has been given to her.

Seeing her familiar face on the newly-unveiled Canadian 10-dollar bill made me feel good. It made me feel proud that she was again honoured by a country that recognized the wrongs that had been done to her more than 70 years ago.

It was in November 1946.

I was an eight-year-old in Grade 3 at the Brown School in New Glasgow. In other words, it was an impressionable time in life for me or any youngster of that or any age.

For several reasons, I never forgot my first impressions from Desmond ‘s experience at the Roseland Theatre, when she was physically removed by town police for sitting on the main floor reserved for white people only, and for refusing to go upstairs to the balcony where blacks were told to sit.

Though only eight, I never forgot what happened.

The Roseland was located just two blocks down the hill from our family home. You could walk there in three minutes. It was one of two theatres in town and, like any kid of that post-war era, it was a regular pastime to go to the movies at the Roseland or nearby Academy.

With a couple friends, in fact, I attended a movie at the Roseland just three days after the Desmond arrest. Even at our tender age, what occurred inside that building weighed on our minds. We talked about it when we got to the theatre. When we sat in our seats, we looked around and realized, no, there were no blacks to be seen. The black kids — even those who went to school with us — were upstairs.

The winter of 1946-47 produced other memories.

Less than two months later, on a Sunday afternoon, fire alarms were sounding and, from our dining room window, we could see thick black smoke going skyward. The fire, one of the biggest in town during my childhood years, was destroying my father’s garage — the Chrysler-Plymouth dealership he owned since returning from flying planes over the English Channel during the First World War. The fire was devastating to him.

That was the same winter, on Christmas morning, that Santa had left a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater under the tree, even though I had asked for a Montreal Canadiens sweater. I’ve always wondered if that’s what affected my hockey allegiance forever.

That winter, too, in the old Arena Rink in the parking grounds — just a couple of minutes walk from the Roseland, I accompanied my father to many New Glasgow Bombers games in a year when the team won another APC League championship.

It was following that team that I got to meet several players who would impress me for a long time.

There was Tiger Mackie, a 30-year-old defenceman who would go on to record an almost unbelievable 80-year hockey career. To this day, I’ve never heard of a player breaking that mark.

There was a young John (Brother) MacDonald on defence, who came from Sydney Mines wound up becoming an icon in the local sports community. The man who opened the door for me to enter the world of journalism.

There were many others playing with the Bombers and Pictou Sunbeams that year who I got to know during my years in Pictou County, who made me realize how many fine people were involved in sports.

But back to Viola Desmond.

I was confused at first, hearing story after story about blacks being segregated, right there in my hometown. Right in the theatre I loved.

Yet I got to know some very fine people who happened to be black, not white. I couldn’t understand any reason why they would be treated differently.

When I got a little older — I was still in school — I got to know Dr. Carrie Best, the local black journalist and social activist who, three years before Viola Desmond stopped in New Glasgow, was similarly treated by the people at the Roseland.

Initially, she took an interest in me because she had known my father for a long time. Later, when I got into the media, she and I had many inspiring conversations. She was a smart and wonderful woman. She was a woman I admired.

In high school, my newspaper career had already begun, resulting in my knowing many members of New Glasgow High sports teams. I don’t recall ever feeling that black athletes were any different from whites.

One of my best pals in class was Gus Paris, who sat across the aisle from me for three years. He played sports and we had good times. His younger brother, Henderson Paris, who later got into the sports and political communities in town, is one of the finest people I’ve ever come across in my long newspaper career.

With these and other issues coming to mind, you can perhaps understand why I decided to change my topic this week.

I felt a little pride of my own when I first saw a photo of the 10-dollar bill honouring Viola Desmond. She may have been just stopping by in our town and county when she decided to see a movie at the Roseland, but nonetheless the incident, for all these years, remained attached to the town of New Glasgow.

I just don’t believe what happened to her in 1946 was indicative of the kind of community New Glasgow was — or is.