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Posted by Patricia W. Elliott on February 02, 2017
Carrie Mae Best's newspaper, the Clarion, covered Viola Desmond's arrest on the front page of its first edition in 1946. Image courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives.

Carrie Mae Best's newspaper, the Clarion, covered Viola Desmond's arrest on the front page of its first edition in 1946. Image courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives.

This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign

By Sandrinette M. Maniania

In 2018, Viola Desmond will be the first woman in Canada to grace the $10 bill. Many now know her story, but a few may not know that it was brought to light by two African Nova Scotian women, 64 years apart.  

Carrie Mae Best (née Prevoe) was born in New Glasgow in 1903. She married Albert T. Best, a Barbados native, who was with the Canadian Army of occupation and served in World War I. Mr. Best was also employed with the Canadian National Railway for 50 years. The two had one biological child, J. Calbert Best, and adopted foster children from the Nova Scotia home.

“She had no fear. I was in awe about the way she approached things,” said Berma Marshall, reminiscing about her mother, the late Carrie M. Best.

“She’d go right to Halifax and knock on the Premier’s door and say she needs five minutes and would come out two hours later,” said Marshall. Not only does she have many fond memories of her mother, but also appreciates what she stood for. “She was ahead of her time, at the time she spoke up for people’s rights,” said Marshall. To her, her mother was a role model whose first priority was education.

In 1946, Best founded the first black-owned newspaper in Nova Scotia called ‘The Clarion.’ The paper, later changed to ‘The Negro Citizen,’ was dedicated to serving the black community and helping improve ethnic relationships in the province.

In the first edition, Best covered the story of social activist Viola Desmond’s arrest at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. She also chronicled an experience she had also been victim of years prior. She and her son James Calbert Best had been to the same theatre, and were forcibly removed by police and charged with disturbing the peace for sitting in the whites-only section. Best was aware of the theatre’s racist policies, and preceded with a plan that would result in taking  legal action. She attempted to sue the theatre, but lost her case.  She was thus passionate about transcribing the events in the Desmond case.

“Had it not been for their paper, it would have probably remained just a local story,” said Marshall.

Best and Desmond knew each other. Desmond, a beautician, would occasionally do her hair. Desmond’s sister Wanda Robson said that Best was one of many who urged Desmond to take her case to Nova Scotia Supreme Court. “What a smart woman she was,” recalled Robson.  “Definitely an activist.”

Marshall wants her mother to be remembered as someone who cared for others. Best was not only concerned for the black community, but also for the Indigenous population. During her time as a columnist for the Pictou Advocate, under the title Human Rights, she exposed poor conditions in First Nations reserves. She also attempted to promote Indigenous rights through her writing.

Best received several honours for her work including the Queen Elizabeth Medal and the order of Nova Scotia, after her death in 2001. She was also made a member of the Order of Canada. In February 2011, Canada Post issued a stamp of her featured. “Being recognized by her own people was more important than the awards she received,” said Marshall.

Almost a decade after Best’s death, the story of Viola Desmond returned to the spotlight, this time, guided by African Nova Scotian journalist Sherri Borden Colley.

In March 2010, Borden Colley, who then worked at the Chronicle Herald, reported  two profile pieces on Desmond.  She explored Desmond’s heroism through the lens of Robson, particularly, her courage to challenge the system to eradicate segregation.  She quoted retired Pictou County Judge Clyde F. MacDonald stating that Desmond should receive an apology for being unjustly jailed for sitting in the white section of the movie theatre in New Glasgow, in 1946. In April 2010, the province of Nova Scotia granted her a free pardon.

Borden Colley does not want to take full credit for this course of action. She explains that the praise should be directed at Robson and others who persistently demanded these rights for years. She said, “I had the ability through journalism to help her.” Robson said, “Sherri did a marvellous job.”  

Borden Colley’s coverage of the story earned her a nomination for the Canadian Association of Journalists award in 2011, and a mention in Nova Scotia’s House of Assembly in November 2016.

Borden Colley is not one who seeks fame, but rather focuses on her purpose. “It gets back to ensuring that the work you do educates people,” she said.  After 21 years at the Chronicle Herald, she left the newspaper because of the strike by unionized workers.  She now works as a reporter at the CBC newsroom in Halifax, and is excited about the change of scenery.  “I didn’t feel it inside me anymore, and then I got a call from CBC, and I’m glad I’ve been able to get that passion back,” she said.  

Borden Colley, a wife and mother to two children, was born and raised along Vale Road in New Glasgow, N.S. Her father was a self-employed garbage man for 64 years. He had his own garbage business in Pictou County, and employed men from the community. Her mother was a homemaker, also caring for older white women. Growing up, she spent many of her Saturdays with her sisters at the Odeon theatre, formerly known as Roseland theatre, where Desmond was arrested.

Her parents knew of the incident, but never spoke of it. “I think because it was such a painful period in their history,” she said. She faced her own set of challenges as a black student. Throughout her school years, she only had two black teachers.  Desmond’s husband, Jack Desmond attended the same church as she, Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, but it was after his death that she learned of the connection.

Borden Colley’s goal was never to become a journalist.  She wanted to become an educator, but was not accepted into either teachers’ college or early childhood studies. However, she did receive admission into University of King’s College, where she completed a four-year honours degree in journalism.

In her career as a journalist, Borden Colley is, in some ways, fulfilling her original dream to be a teacher. She has helped educate her colleagues and others through her treatment of stories. “That’s why it is important to have diverse newsrooms you know,” she said. “Because we all come in with sort of our conscious or unconscious biases.”  

Claire Mcllveen, a former colleague of Borden Colley’s at the Chronicle Herald said, “She is a great example of somebody who doesn’t always speak for herself but speaks for others in a strong and respectful and kind of understated way, which is even more powerful.”

“I think that through my work that I’m actually able to empower the black community,” Borden Colley said. Borden Colley also sees a future outside of journalism—Her vision for the future is to do grief counselling. She is working towards her next goal. She has already completed 60 hours of counselling skills courses at the Dalhousie School of Social Work, and intends to do more.

Editor's note, Feb. 2, 2017: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Borden Colley's two children are both adopted. Only one child is adopted. Cornwallis Street Baptist Church was referred to using the incorrect name. And Borden Colley has completed 60 hours of counselling, not 30. We apologize for the errors.

Sandrinette M. Maniania is an artist and journalist based in Halifax, N.S. She has a bachelor’s in communication and in journalism. She is currently undertaking a master of journalism in new ventures at the University of King’s College.

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J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.