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Heroic act in ’40s helps student win contest


Clara Halfpenny put herself in Viola Desmond's shoes and came away with an award-winning essay. Ray Burns – The News

PICTOU – Recognizing the accomplishments of a heroic Canadian woman has earned a Pictou student an all-expenses paid trip to the nation's capital.

Sixteen-year-old Clara Halfpenny entered the national Mathieu DaCosta Challenge with an original essay about Viola Desmond's struggle for equality in the 1940s.

"I feel excited that I'm going to go to Ottawa," said Halfpenny. "It's my first time there and my mom is going to come with me."

The Mathieu DaCosta Challenge (, sponsored by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, is an annual creative writing and artwork contest launched in 1996. The challenge encourages youth to discover how diversity has shaped Canada's history and the important role that pluralism plays in Canadian society.

Halfpenny, a home-schooled student, discovered Desmond's historic role in breaking down colour barriers while reading a magazine article about another famous social activist.

She titled her essay Black and White and wrote it in a first-person perspective, trying to capture how she believed Desmond would have felt during a historic event at New Glasgow's Roseland Theatre on a November evening in 1946.

The young Halifax beautician was storm stayed in New Glasgow with a broken down car, so she decided to take in a movie at the local theater. She was sold a balcony ticket, the area where blacks were segregated from other residents, but she refused to sit there and was forcibly removed from the theater by police. She was charged with "attempting to defraud the Federal Government" based on her refusal to pay the one cent amusement tax difference between the two seating areas.

She was found guilty and fined $20 plus $6 for the theatre's court costs.

"I wanted people to know more about her," said the teenager. "I thought it would give her recognition so we could remember what she had done."

Halfpenny said she was inspired by Desmond's willingness to stand up for her rights.

The attention generated by her case forced the Nova Scotia government to dismantle its segregation laws, which were repealed in 1954.

Desmond is in the news again lately with reports that the provincial government is considering having her conviction expunged.

Halfpenny thinks it's a good idea.

"I think that she shouldn't be blamed for something that she didn't do wrong…I think she'd probably feel that it wasn't for nothing."

Halfpenny said her biggest challenge in writing the essay was putting her thoughts on paper and gaining the confidence to send it away to be scrutinized by contest judges.

"I was just in shock," she said, about receiving a call from a contest official telling her she was selected as a finalist.

Halfpenny will take part in an awards ceremony in Ottawa in April hosted by the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.

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