Lois Ann Dort

editorial: Uh, what day is it?

Feb  19th, 2020  •   Guysborough Journal  •  Editorial

Everybody knows that winter in Nova Scotia can be long. By February many of us are dreaming of summer if not planning vacations down south. That is why the government decided that we needed a holiday in February, a free day to break up the winter doldrums.

On December 5, 2013 the province legislated that the third Monday of February, starting in 2015, would become a statutory holiday. But what should this new holiday celebrate?

The Department of Labour and Advanced Education took on this question and brought it to local schools, asking students from grades Primary to 12 for their suggestions. A panel reviewed the suggestions and decided that our new holiday would be called Heritage Day and would celebrate a different figure or event from our history every year with the first year’s honouree being Viola Desmond. Desmond was also later honoured for her role in the civil rights movement by the Bank of Canada; making her the first Canadian woman to be featured on a regular bank note in 2018.

In February 2015, many people suggested that Heritage Day be scrapped and permanently named Viola Desmond Day; a parallel to the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. Those calls fell on deaf ears and this past Monday we celebrated Heritage Day which marked the 10th anniversary of the Africville apology, though few Nova Scotians knew it.

The story of Africville and the harms perpetrated by the government against the African Nova Scotians who called the community home should not be forgotten; this history should be part of our collective memory but honouring this struggle on Heritage Day did little to that end. Observing social media posts, event advertising and media coverage throughout the day revealed that most Nova Scotians thought the new holiday was Family Day; which it is in five provinces, but not this one.

Clearly the government has failed to achieve it’s stated purpose, to create a holiday that would instill pride in Nova Scotians and “give the new holiday a meaningful name and theme.” But it’s not too late. In 2015 the buzz around Viola Desmond Day was big in the media, in schools and on the street. Everyone was aware of the holiday and who it was celebrating—finally, recognition of one of our own heroes of the civil rights movement. Who remembers the honourees of Heritage Day 2016, 2017, 2018…we’d guess, very few.

The holiday has little to no meaning for people when the subject is changed on a yearly basis. To make an impression, repetition is necessary. That is not to say that other past and future honourees submitted for Heritage Day are not worthy of recognition, but that only one should occupy this holiday for the sake of consistency and remembrance.  

For this year’s honouree, a recently published book Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Africville

An African Nova Scotian Community is Demolished — and Fights Back by Gloria Ann Wesley, a former elementary school teacher in Guysborough, is a good primer on the history of that community, their fight for recognition and their spirit. Making this book available in schools and libraries would perhaps do more for the recognition of this part of our history than naming it the honouree of Heritage Day 2020.

If we want this holiday in February to mean more than a day off in the dead of winter, it has to grasp our hearts and remain in our minds. In the last decade, few Nova Scotian stories have done that to such an extent as that of Viola Desmond’s. Our civil rights icon deserves her own day—and the third Monday in February appears to be available.

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