Wanda Robson, the younger sister of Viola Desmond, passed away on Saturday at the age of 95.
“It is with great sadness I announce the passing of my great friend and storytelling partner Wanda Eloise Robson of North Sydney, Nova Scotia,” wrote African Nova Scotian artist and poet David Woods in a Facebook post.
“Besides being a mother and grandmother, Wanda was the author of a bestselling autobiography, a motivational speaker who spoke to dozens of schools across Canada, an award-winning storyteller, and importantly an advocate for justice for her sister — the beloved Nova Scotia and Canadian civil right icon Viola Desmond,” Woods wrote.
Woods said that a 2009 letter Robson wrote to the mayor of New Glasgow “requesting the expunging of the unjust 1946 conviction of her sister Viola” is what “set in motion the events that made Viola Desmond a Canadian icon.”
“Following her letter,” Woods wrote, “many took up her cause and this led to the granting of Viola Desmond’s Royal Prerogative Free Pardon in 2010, the dissemination of Viola’s arrest and life story [told] world-wide including on CNN, and finally Viola’s selection as the first Canadian-born woman to be featured on our Canadian currency in 2018.”
Inspiring the youth
“You’re beautiful,” Robson whispered into Tayte Douglas’ ear when they first met at a March 2017 school assembly at William King Elementary School in Halifax.
Robson didn’t know when they met, but Tayte has family roots in the Black community of New Glasgow where Viola Desmond was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a movie theatre.
Two years before meeting Robson, Tayte’s Grade 2/3 class wrote and illustrated a children’s book, The ABC’s of Viola Desmond, as part of a contest for African Heritage Month.
The book was published by the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Leaning Institute. Robson, who wrote a forward for the book, made a surprise appearance at the 2017 school assembly where the book was unveiled.
“And [our teacher] was like, ‘Viola’s sister’s going to come.’ And we were like, ‘What?! Really?!’” recalled Tayte, now almost 14, in an interview with the Examiner. “There were some parents there, she was talking to them, she was talking to the kids, and the teachers. She was just getting to know us. She was really nice.”
In the preface on the book’s back cover, Robson wrote, “These children not only grasped the facts of Viola’s story, but then captured it in words and images, that can reach and teach a whole new audience. I know Viola would join me in thanking these students and their wonderful teachers, Pam Caines and Beatrice MacDonald, for this unique and thoughtful portrayal.”
Tayte’s mother, Rae-Leah Douglas, said the book went on to become part of the Grade 3 curriculum. Tayte’s class was also invited to attend a Word on the Street event at the Halifax Central Library alongside Robson, as well as several other events meant to commemorate Desmond.
“It was pretty clear that [Robson] was pretty proud of this book and the fact that the kids were involved in it, because she also made sure that that group of kids from the school were invited when they unveiled the $10 bill at the library,” Douglas said. “And that was an invite-only event.”
“They all got to see her see that $10 bill for the first time. Tayte treated those events like a job; She had to go because she was an author and Wanda was going to be there, or [because] Wanda invited them.”
“She just really enjoyed the company of the little kids around her,” Tayte said. “She talked to me a lot, she was very fond of me, and I was very fond of her because she was really nice.”
“I just feel like a part of her existence,” she said. “Just a very kind person, and it was very sad to hear that she passed away.”
Woods said that Robson’s advocacy lead to even further upcoming commemorations of her sister such as a TV mini-series, stage dramas, and a memorial sculpture that will be placed on Gottingen Street near where Desmond’s beauty salon was once located.
“Wanda my friend whose tongue (as her a father James Davis would say) ‘was hung in the middle’ will be greatly missed. I love you dearly,” Woods wrote.
Robson is survived by her husband, Joe Robson, her four sons, one daughter, 10 grandchildren, and many friends.