Women to Know – Viola Desmond
Chances are, you know that Viola Desmond is going to be the new face of the $10 bill, but you may not know who she is. She is the first Canadian-born woman who will appear on a Canadian banknote. The only other woman who does is Queen Elizabeth. Desmond is considered Canada’s Rosa Parks, but she hasn’t gotten near the recognition that Parks has received. Desmond is considered to have started the civil rights movement in Canada. Who is this woman who changed history?
Viola Desmond and Her Beginnings
Viola was born to James and Gwendolin Davis in 1914 in Halifax. She was one of fifteen children. Her parents were active in the black community and belonged to many organizations. Viola wanted to become a beautician because she noticed that professional skin and hair care products were not available for black women. She wasn’t allowed to train in her own town of Halifax. She went to Montreal, Atlantic City and New York to receive the training she needed to open her own hair salon.
Once she returned to Halifax, she did open a salon. She also set up a beauty school for black women to receive proper training. Desmond encouraged students to open their own businesses and then to hire other black women within the community. She marketed and sold her own line of beauty products for black women. It was on a business trip to sell these products when she made her stand.
Trouble in New Glasgow
Viola went to New Glasgow in November 1946 to promote her line. Her car broke down in the town. The parts would not become available until the next day. She went to the Roseland Film Theatre to pass the time. After purchasing her ticket, she took a seat on the main floor. The manager informed her that she could not sit there because she was black. She refused to sit in the balcony, which was designated exclusively for blacks. The police were called and had to forcibly remove her from the segregated theatre. She was injured in the process, kept in jail overnight and never informed that she had a right to a lawyer or bail.
There was a one-cent difference in tax between the price of the seats in the balcony and the seats on the main floor. Desmond was charged with tax evasion for not paying this difference. She was fined $20, which is about $270 in today’s costs, plus had to pay court costs of $6. She was able to pay the fine and return to her home town. Her husband suggested she let the matter go, but Desmond decided to fight the charge.
The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) and her church helped her hire a lawyer. The first trials proved unsuccessful because she was not convicted out of racism or discrimination, but simply because she refused to pay the one-cent tax.
The case was dismissed. Justice William Lorimer Hall wrote, “One wonders if the manager of the theatre who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide belief that there had been an attempt to defraud the province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavour to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.”
Desmond died in 1965 due to a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. She was just 50 years old. Most people forgot about her act until Viola’s sister published “Sister to Courage” in 2010. The Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Mayann Francis, granted Desmond a free pardon, the first to be granted posthumously. Desmond would be honoured on a Canadian stamp in 2012. And now, in 2018, she will be the first Canadian woman to be portrayed on a Canadian note.