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Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter greets Wanda Robson in New Glasgow, N.S., on Thursday, April 15. Ms. Robson's sister Viola Desmond was posthumously pardoned for her 1946 arrest.

PAUL DARROW/Paul Darrow/Reuters

Wanda Robson remembers the shame she felt after her sister's arrest.

In 1946, Viola Desmond was dragged out of a cinema in New Glasgow for refusing to leave the section that management reserved for whites. It was a show of defiance that later saw her labelled Canada's Rosa Parks and on Thursday garnered a rare free pardon - believed to be the first such pardon granted posthumously in the country's history.

At the time, though, all Ms. Robson knew was that the law had deemed her sister a criminal.

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"She came and said, 'Twelve hours I spent in jail,' " said Ms. Robson, now 83. "The word 'jail' just struck me. Jail. Jail, to me, means that you've done something wrong."

The case didn't spark the sort of immediate effect seen after Ms. Parks's 1955 refusal to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, an act credited with kick-starting the Montgomery bus boycott. But it gnawed at the province's black community. The court proceedings had never acknowledged the racial aspect of the case, and it took decades for the obvious to be admitted.

"Mrs. Desmond was an innocent woman, in 1946 the Crown made an error," Justice Minister Ross Landry said on Thursday. "The time has come to right a wrong."

Ms. Desmond had been on the road for her business selling beauty products when her car broke down. Intending to kill time at the movies in New Glasgow, the 33-year-old was refused a ticket for the floor seating at the Roseland Theatre. She paid the slightly cheaper price to enter the balcony, then sat in the floor area anyway.

Police arrested her and she was convicted of tax evasion - the floor seats carried a one-cent-higher tax, a fee she was deemed to have evaded by buying the balcony ticket. She appealed and won on a technicality. But she died in New York in 1965 without the injustice of her treatment ever being acknowledged.

On Thursday, Nova Scotia wiped the slate clean through the highly unusual granting of a free pardon. Unlike the routine pardons offered to hundreds of people annually - a simple bureaucratic procedure - a free pardon is an acknowledgment that the person actually was innocent.

"It essentially sets aside the judicial process," explained Premier Darrell Dexter. "This is a historic day for us to recognize the courageous act of Viola Desmond. It's a day for us to say that this is a point of departure for our province."

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The opposition Progressive Conservatives tabled a bill Thursday that would designate Nov. 8 - the day of her defiance in the movie theatre - as Viola Desmond Day.

The pardon was applauded by the black community, whose leaders have often argued that the province has been slow to recognize and eradicate racism.

"This is absolutely magnificent," said activist Burnley (Rocky) Jones. "It means a lot for the black community and it means a lot for Canadians."

The Premier called the pardon a statement of "our determination to work toward the eradication of racism," while also acknowledging that "racial discrimination and intolerance continue to exist." He did not cite specifics, but several high-profile cases in recent years have tested local race relations.

The Black Loyalist Heritage Society in Shelburne was burned to the foundation in 2006. In Digby, a fracas between police and black youths sparked accusations of racism in 2008, and officers with Halifax Regional Police alleged systemic discrimination. In February, a black man and a white woman near Windsor awoke to find a cross with a noose dangling from it burning on their lawn.

But there has also been progress. The city of Halifax recently apologized for the destruction of Africville, a black community in the north end. Hundreds of whites turned out after the cross-burning to show their support for the targeted couple.

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And Thursday's pardon of Viola Desmond was signed by Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis, a black woman.

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