History Series: Viola Desmond & Black Rights in Canada
It is evident with the current Black Lives Matter movement in Canada and across the globe, that we are still fighting for equality and justice for Black citizens. In today’s world, we have people leading marches and protests, signing online petitions, giving donations, social media hashtags and muted platforms and Instagram influencers speaking out against racism. There is much more to do and more un-learning to be done.
In decades previous, before the internet and social media, Black men and women, and their allies used only their physical voice and actions to spark change. Many of these people in history were not self-proclaimed activists, but every day people taking a stand.
'All lives don't matter until Black lives matter.'
Viola Desmond grew up in a hardworking middle-class family, that was well respected in the Black community. She taught Black students in racially segregated schools before going to beauty school in Montreal; one of the few that accepted Black students. Eventually she opened her own studio in Halifax, which catered to the Black community.
Desmond was an entrepreneur and businesswoman, achieving a position of social status through her beauty parlour. She opened her own school, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, training women and expanding her own business. She also developed her own line of products. Her school helped the growth of employment for other Black Canadian women.
Racism was not something openly discussed at the time, but in the 1940’s it was evident by Black Canadians that they had certain restrictions due to the colour of their skin. Public areas such as movie theatres were segregated. In November of 1946, Viola Desmond made an unplanned stop in the small town of New Glasgow, and decided to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre.
Desmond asked for a ticket on the main floor, which she could afford, yet was given a balcony seat; an area reserved for non-White patrons. She attempted to sit in the main area, but was told she had a balcony ticket. Assuming it was a mistake she went back to the ticket seller for her main floor ticket. When told she could not purchase a main floor ticket due to her skin colour, she decided to sit in that area anyway.
The manager confronted Desmond, and when she refused to leave her seat, the police were called. She was arrested, and injured by the officer in the process. She remained in jail all night, and was taken to court the following day. She was brought up on false charges and was fined. Part of the fine was given to the manager of the theatre who called the cops. She was never offered legal representation during the trial.
Her husband told her to put the issue to rest, but others took interest in her case. Money was raised to fight her sentence. Carrie Best the owner of The Clarion newspaper put Viola Desmond’s story on the front page of her paper. Carrie Best, her son, and many other Black locals had also been kicked out of the White-only area of the same theatre. Desmond tried to have her charge reversed. It was not a clear-cut situation, since racial discrimination was not illegal at the time. After fighting the conviction and filing her own civil suit, her conviction remained. Viola was one of many who fought for equality, and in 1954 segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia.
Viola Desmond passed away in 1965, but decades later her story gained more attention thanks to the efforts of her sister Wanda. In 2010, Desmond was granted pardon and a public apology. In 2012 a postage stamp circulated with her image. In 2016, it was decided that Viola Desmond would be the new face on the Canadian $10 bank note, and was released in 2018. The bank note also includes a map of Nova Scotia, and the quote, ‘Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination.”