International Womens’ Day Profile: Viola Desmond

March 8, 2019

Viola Desmond, Image by Bank of Canada

Book of the City of Ladies: Viola Desmond

In 1405, Christine de Pizan wrote a book full of the stories of exceptional women, to prove that all the terrible things men were saying about women weren’t true. If I could write the sequel, I would have a lot of stories of exceptional women to tell.

 

You might recognize Viola Desmond as the woman now featured on the Canadian $10 bill, and you might even have heard that she’s the ‘Canadian Rosa Parks’, but there’s a lot more to Desmond’s story than that.

Viola Desmond was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1914. She wanted to be a hairdresser, but as beauty schools in Nova Scotia did not accept black women, she had to go first to Montréal, and then to New York, to get her education. When she returned to Halifax, she opened her own hairdressing business. Desmond opened her own beauty school for black women, so that they would have the opportunity for education that she had had to travel to get. She also sold her own cosmetics line. Not only was she a businesswoman, she worked to empower other black women in her community as well.

Viola Desmond bank note Image by Bank of Canada

The incident which came to define her happened when she was in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, because her car needed to be fixed. Desmond went to the movie theatre, and the theatre was segregated – only white people were allowed on the floor, and people of colour had to sit in the balcony. Desmond was short-sighted, so she sat in a floor seat, and when someone came to ask her to move to the balcony, she refused. She was arrested and spent the night in jail.

The charges against Desmond don’t necessarily seem like they belong in a civil rights case. Canada, unlike the United States, never had Jim Crow laws, so Desmond couldn’t actually be arrested simply for sitting in a ‘whites only’ area. Instead, Desmond was charged with tax evasion— the tax on a balcony seat was one cent less than on the floor seat which she had used, so she had ‘evaded’ one cent in taxes. It’s fairly clear that there was a racist motivation in the arrest, and of course in the segregated theatre in the first place, but if Desmond hadn’t chosen to fight it, none of that would have been recorded.

Desmond wasn’t alone when she chose to fight the charge— the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People supported her, and Carrie Best reported on her trial. Desmond and her lawyer did not succeed in getting the charge overturned due to a technicality, but her efforts paved the way for later rulings that would disallow segregation and discriminatory practices in businesses. It also brought public attention to the NSAACP, who continued to fight for civil rights in Nova Scotia. Desmond wasn’t pardoned until 2010, forty-five years after her death. Her pardon was signed by Mayann Francis, the first black woman Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.

Great Resources

If you want to know more about Viola Desmond, you can read her sister’s book. If you want to know more about black history in Canada, here is a good resource that links to a lot of other sites, and if you want to learn about other black Canadian women who have made and are making a difference, here’s a list to start with.

By Sarah Regier

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