post prepared by Brenna Williams
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Today is International Women’s Day! This year’s theme is #ChoosetoChallenge, and what better way to celebrate than by showcasing the achievements of the Nova Scotian woman who chose to challenge racial segregation in Canada? You’ve probably seen her staring back at you from a crisp new $10 bill, but how much do you really know about Viola Desmond? Read on to learn more about this iconic Canadian woman.
Viola Desmond was born on July 6, 1914 and, before gaining her reputation as a civil rights leader, she owned a beauty salon in Halifax. As a successful businesswomen and entrepreneur Desmond ran her salon and her beauty school – The Desmond School of Beauty Culture – as well as selling her own cosmetics line in salons across the province. On November 8th of 1946, Desmond was on her way to a business meeting when her car broke down in New Glasgow.
While waiting for it to be fixed she decided to visit the Roseland Movie Theatre. She requested a ticket for a main floor seat but was a sold a ticket to the balcony, where non-white customers were forced to sit. But instead of sitting in the balcony, Desmond persisted in sitting on the main floor and refused to leave when asked. The police were called, and she was violently dragged out of the theatre and jailed for the night. They charged her with refusing to pay a tax on her movie ticket (even though she’d been willing to pay it). Desmond then hired a lawyer, Frederick Bisset and filed a civil suit against the theatre and its manager for assault and false imprisonment. After the stress of the trial, which Desmond unfortunately lost, she eventually abandoned her business and left the province. Segregation wouldn’t officially end in Nova Scotia until 1954, almost a decade after Desmond’s case.
Desmond passed away on February 7th, 1965 and was largely forgotten by Canadian history. In 2003, various efforts to bring Desmond’s story back into the public discourse were made by her sister, Wanda Robson. Over the last decade or so, the media has often compared Desmond, and her role in Canada’s civil rights movement, to America’s Rosa Parks. However, it’s worth noting that Desmond refused to give up her seat in a movie theatre about nine years before Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus.
Desmond was posthumously pardoned by the Nova Scotia government in 2010 – 63 years after her conviction. Desmond has since been commemorated in various ways:
- 2012 Desmond’s image was featured by Canada Post on a stamp
- 2015 an outdoor theatre, named for Desmond, opened in Halifax
- 2016 Historica Canada released a Heritage Minute about Desmond’s role in Canadian civil rights
- 2018 Desmond became the new face of the Canadian ten dollar bill
Robson has also contributed to recent books on Desmond and black history in Canada. These include:
- Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land by Graham Reynolds, with Wanda Robson
- Published in 2016
- Intended for both students and general readers interested in Black Canadian history
- Viola Desmond’s Canada traces the Black experience in Canada from slavery under the French and British colonialists in the 18th century to racial segregation in the 20th century, and Desmond’s fight for racial equality
- Includes personal anecdotes from Robson as well as previously unpublished documents and primary source material
- Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times by Graham Reynolds and Wanda Robson
- Published 2018
- Presents an authoritative biography
- New research on Desmond’s iconic role in the fight against racial segregation in Canada and her lesser known achievements as an African Canadian businesswoman and entrepreneur
- Both books are available through the St Francis Xavier University Library catalogue
Resources & References
Bank of Canada:
Canadian Museum for Human Rights:
- Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szSqfmbXx0Y
- Article: https://humanrights.ca/news/cmhr-honoured-to-be-featured-on-new-10-bank-note-with-viola-desmond
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:
Historica Canada (Canadian Heritage Minute clip):
Williams, K. “Finding Viola: the untrue, true story of a groundbreaking female African Nova Scotian entrepreneur” (Academic Article)