Rosa Parks. Coretta Scott King. Myrlie Evers. It’s odd how many Canadians can name the American women of the Civil Rights struggle, but would be hard pressed to name any of the Canadian women who fought for racial equality here. Perhaps this is because many Canadians believe that Canada has always been equal, open and accepting of all races. The unfortunate truth is that Canada had its own Civil Rights movement. However, this chapter of our history is often missing from the lessons taught in our schools.
One name that we should all know is Dr. Carrie M. Best. Who is Carrie Best? She was Canada’s first Rosa Parks. She was a journalist, an activist, a pioneer, and a humanitarian of the highest order. Carrie Best used her one small voice and turned it into a booming cry that could not be ignored.
Carrie Prevoe was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1903. In 1925, she married Albert T. Best and changed her name to the one that under which she would rise to prominence. Her first brush with notoriety came in 1942 when she and her son Cal were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace for sitting in the whites only seats of The Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow (they were ultimately convicted and fined). Mrs. Best attempted to fight this injustice by undertaking anti-racist litigation against her home town. However, nothing came of it, and most of history seems to have forgotten about this episode.
From that point on, Mrs. Best became a vocal advocate for racial equality and social justice. In 1946, she founded The Clarion, the first black-owned, black-published newspaper in Nova Scotia. She used the newspaper to publicize the case of Viola Desmond, another black woman arrested and fined for sitting in the whites-only seats at Roseland. When Desmond appealed the ruling, Carrie Best travelled to Halifax to be in the courtroom to hear the case. Viola Desmond lost her first appeal, but continued to fight, and Mrs. Best continued to follow the case both in person and in The Clarion. Desmond won her second appeal, helping to put an end the Jim Crow laws in Nova Scotia.
The Clarion continued to be published until 1956, when it changed its name to The Negro Citizen and began national circulation. During that period, Mrs. Best also began broadcasting a radio show called The Quiet Corner. That show remained on the air for 12 years and was broadcast on as many as five stations across the Maritimes. In 1968, Carrie Best was hired as a Human Rights columnist for the Pictou Advocate. For seven years, she used that platform to fight for better conditions on Native Reserves, to end discrimination against black property owners, and to end racism in Canadian legal and political institutions.
In 1975, Carrie M. Best’s contribution to our country is formally recognized when she is made a Member of the Order of Canada (in 1979, she is made an Officer of the Order). Over the course of her life, she was also awarded a number of honorary doctorates, as well as a Queen Elizabeth Medal.
Carrie Best died in her home town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia on July 24, 2001. In 2002, she was posthumously awarded the Order of Nova Scotia.