It was on night of November 8th, 1946, that Viola Desmond’s bold act of defiance made her into the civil-rights icon that she is today. Her little-known story can be compared to that of Rosa Park’s. However, the recognition for her actions is growing as she becomes the first Canadian woman to be featured on a regularly circulating part our country’s currency.
Viola was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was one of ten children. Her parents, James Albert Davis and Gwendolin Irene Davis, were well-respected and active members of the Black Community in Halifax. Desmond studied at the Field Beauty Culture School in Montréal, and went on to continue her training in Atlantic City and in New York. Before long, she found success by establishing Desmond School of Beauty Culture and by starting her own line of beauty products. As a successful black businesswoman, she was seen as a role-model and mentor for young black women in her community.
After having her car break down in the middle of a business trip, Desmond decided to see a movie while waiting for repairs to be done. At the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, she attempted to buy a ticket for a seat on the main floor, but was instead given a ticket for a seat on the balcony—an area reserved for customers who were not white. Assuming a mistake had been made, she asked again for a seat on the main floor but was told that tickets for the main floor could not be sold to people of her race. Due to not being able to see from the balcony seats, Desmond decided to sit in the “white” section anyways.
When she was asked to take a seat on the balcony, she refused. As a result, Desmond was then forcibly removed from the theatre by the police and had injured her hip on the way. She was kept in jail for 12 hours on the charge of trying to evade taxes by refusing to pay the one cent amusement tax (the difference in cost between the main floor ticket and the balcony ticket). She was fined twenty-six dollars.
In 2010, forty-five years after her death, Viola Desmond was granted a free pardon from the province of Nova Scotia for the charges against her.
The events of that night were a stepping stone towards ending segregation in Canada and are now being acknowledged by the Bank of Canada. The vertically oriented bill —the first of its kind in Canada— features a portrait of Desmond on one side and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on the other.
Viola Desmond’s largely unheard of story will now be a permanent part of Canadian history. Her actions of challenging the norms of society will continue to inspire people of future generations to fight for equality.
Bingham, Russell. “Viola Desmond.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 27 Jan. 2013, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/viola-desmond/.
Bundale, Brett. “Canada Unveils $10 Bill Featuring Civil Rights Icon Viola Desmond.” Thestar.com, 8 Mar. 2018, www.thestar.com/news/canada/2018/03/08/10-bill-featuring-canadian-civil-rights-icon-viola-desmond-to-be-unveiled.html.
Darrow, Paul, and Bank of Canada. “Viola Desmond, Civil-Rights Pioneer, to Be Featured on Canada's New $10 Bill.” The Globe and Mail, 12 Nov. 2017, www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/women-on-banknotes-viola-desmond/article33264617/.