Meet Viola Desmond, “Canada’s Rosa Parks”

UNDATED — Undated archival handout photo of Viola Desmond. On April 15, 2010, the Nova Scotia legislature will grant a controversial, posthumous pardon to Desmond, whom many consider Canada’s Rosa Parks. In 1946 Viola Desmond was arrested and jailed for sitting in the whites-only section of a local cinema. The case ignited the civil rights movement in Canada. MANDATORY CREDIT: HANDOUT PHOTO: Effective Publishing Ltd. For Richard Foot (Canwest) CNS-PARDON

When Chelsea Clinton followed up her 2017 best-selling children’s book She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World with 2018’s She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History, she chose Viola Desmond as one of the women. Viola Desmond is popularly known worldwide as “Canada’s Rosa Parks” due to her courageous refusal to accept an act of racial discrimination that provided inspiration to a later generation of black persons in Nova Scotia and in the rest of Canada.

“When Viola Desmond was on a business trip, her car broke down, so she decided to go to the movies while she waited for it to be fixed,” wrote Clinton. “But Viola didn’t know that in the town she was visiting, only white Canadians were allowed to sit on the movie theater’s main floor. When Viola was asked to leave, she persisted in saying that it was her right to sit wherever she wanted. Viola was arrested and spent the night in jail. Her decision to fight the charges against her helped start the modern civil rights movement in Canada.”

Born Viola Irene Davis on July 6, 1914 in Halifax, Viola Desmond was a Canadian civil rights activist and businesswoman of Black Nova Scotian descent. In 1946 she challenged racial segregation at a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia by refusing to leave a whites-only area of the Roseland Theatre. For this, she was convicted of a minor tax violation for the one-cent tax difference between the seat she had paid for and the seat she used, which was more expensive. Desmond’s case is one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Canadian history and helped start the modern civil rights movement in Canada.

In 2010, Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon, the first to be granted in Canada. The Government of Nova Scotia also apologized for prosecuting her for tax evasion and acknowledged she was rightfully resisting racial discrimination. In 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to be featured on the front of a Canadian banknote, but that honor went to Agnes Macphail, who appeared along with three men on a small print run commemorative note issued in 2017 to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

In late 2018 Desmond became the first Canadian woman to appear alone on a Canadian bank note—a $10 bill which was unveiled by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz during a ceremony at the Halifax Central Library on March 8, 2018. Desmond was also named a National Historic Person in 2018.

Viola was one of ten children of James Albert and Gwendolin Irene (née Johnson) Davis. Viola grew up with her grandparents who were active in the black community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, despite the fact that her mother was white and her father black, unusual for the time. Growing up, Desmond noted the absence of professional hair and skin-care products for black women and set her sights on addressing the need. Being of African descent, she was not allowed to train to become a beautician in Halifax, so she left and received beautician training in Montreal, Atlantic City and one of Madam C. J. Walker’s beauty schools in New York. Upon finishing her training, Desmond returned to Halifax to start her own hair salon. Desmond opened The Desmond School of Beauty Culture so that black women would not have to travel as far as she had to receive proper training. Each year as many as fifteen women graduated from the school, all of whom had been denied admission to whites-only training schools. Desmond also started her own line of beauty products, Vi’s Beauty Products, which she marketed and sold herself.

Viola Desmond joined her husband Jack Desmond in a combined barbershop and hairdressing salon on Gottingen Street. On November 8, 1946 while on a business trip to Sydney to sell her beauty products, Viola Desmond’s car broke down in New Glasgow. She was told that she would have to wait a day before the parts to fix it became available. To pass the time while waiting, she went to see The Dark Mirror starring Olivia de Havilland at the Roseland Film Theatre.

There were no formal laws enforcing segregation in movie theatres in New Glasgow, and the theatre had no sign telling its patrons about the policy, but main floor seats were reserved for white patrons. Ms. Desmond was sold a ticket to the balcony unaware of the segregation and, being nearsighted, went to sit in the floor section to be close to the screen. When she was asked to move, she realized what was happening, and refused to move because she had a better view from the main floor there. Then she was forcibly removed from the theater causing an injury to her hip and also was arrested for 12 hours in jail, and had to pay a $20 fine. The tax on the balcony price of 20 cents was two cents; the tax on the floor price of 40 cents was three cents. She was convicted of depriving the government of one cent in tax. Desmond was kept in jail overnight and was never informed about her right to legal advice, a lawyer, or bail.

Upon returning to Halifax, Desmond discussed the matter with her husband, and his advice was to let it go. However, she then sought advice from the leaders of her church, the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, where the Minister William Pearly Oliver and his wife Pearline encouraged her to take action. With their support, Desmond decided to fight the charge in court.

Following the decision to fight the charge, Carrie Best broke the story of Desmond in the first edition of The Clarion, the first black-owned and published Nova Scotia newspaper. Best had herself previously confronted the racial segregation of the Roseland Theatre.

With the help of her church and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), Desmond hired a lawyer, Frederick William Bissett, who represented her in the criminal trials and attempted, unsuccessfully, to file a lawsuit against the Roseland Theatre.

During subsequent trials the government insisted on arguing that this was a case of tax evasion. A provincial act regulating cinemas and movie theatres required the payment of an amusement tax based on the price of the theatre ticket. Since the theatre would only agree to sell Desmond a cheaper balcony ticket, but she had insisted upon sitting in the much more expensive main floor seat, she was only one cent short on tax. The statute used to convict Desmond contained no explicitly racist or discriminatory language.

Bissett’s decision to opt for a judicial review rather than appeal the original conviction proved disastrous. Desmond’s lawyer tried to appeal the decision on the basis of her being wrongfully accused of tax evasion, not on the basis of racial discrimination.

When dismissing the case, Justice William Lorimer Hall said: “Had the matter reached the court by some other method than certiorari there might have been an opportunity to right the wrong done [to] this unfortunate woman. 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.”

Her lawyer, Bissett, refused to bill Desmond and the money was used to support William Pearly Oliver’s newly established Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP).

After the trial, Desmond closed her business and moved to Montreal where she could enroll in a business college. She eventually settled in New York City, where she died from gastrointestinal bleeding on February 7, 1965, at the age of 50. She is buried at Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

William Pearly Oliver later reflected on Desmond’s legacy as follows: “… this meant something to our people. Neither before or since has there been such an aggressive effort to obtain rights. The people arose as one and with one voice. This positive stand enhanced the prestige of the Negro community throughout the Province. It is my conviction that much of the positive action that has since taken place stemmed from this …”

Desmond is often compared to Rosa Parks, given they both challenged racism by refusing to vacate seats in “Whites Only” sections and contributed to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, there are significant differences between the two figures. Desmond lived in a different legislative context than Parks, given there were no Jim Crow laws in Canada. Parks’ decision to refuse to give up her seat to a white man was an act of civil disobedience against Jim Crow laws that supported segregation on public transit. In contrast, Desmond was protesting a private theatre owner’s efforts at segregation, which were not supported by provincial laws.

Commemorations to her legacy

On January 28, 2019, a Nova Scotia school teacher was awarded the Governor General’s History Award for her students’ proposal to build a statue of Desmond in Cornwallis Park. Her proposal was to include the existing Edward Cornwallis statue among three other statues of Acadian Noël Doiron, Black Nova Scotian Viola Desmond and Mi’kmaw Chief John Denny Jr. The four statutes would be positioned as if in a conversation with each other, discussing their accomplishments and struggles.

Cape Breton University established a scholarship campaign in the names of Viola Desmond and Wanda Robson, and named a Chair in Social Justice after Desmond.

In 2012, Desmond was portrayed on a commemorative stamp issued by Canada Post.

On July 7, 2016, a Halifax harbour ferry was launched bearing her name, along with the Christopher Stannix and Craig Blake.

On December 8, 2016, she was chosen as the first Canadian woman to appear on the Canadian ten-dollar note after being on a shortlist of five. On November 26, 2018, the Bank of Canada released a new design of the $10 bill, celebrating Viola Desmond’s achievements in the civil rights movement. While Agnes Macphail appeared on a note in 2017 with three others, Desmond was the first non-royal woman to appear alone on a regularly circulated note.

Desmond was named a National Historic Person on January 12, 2018.

In June 2018, Canada’s Walk of Fame star was unveiled at the Halifax Ferry Terminal.

Viola Desmond in The Arts

In 2000, Desmond and other Canadian civil rights activists were the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary Journey to Justice. A documentary film was made about her, entitled Long Road to Justice: The Viola Desmond Story.

Her sister, Wanda Robson, wrote a book about activism in her family and her experiences with her sister, titled Sister to Courage. Desmond was also the subject of a children’s book Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner, which is available for checkout at the Nashville Public Library.

African Canadian Singer-songwriter Faith Nolan wrote a song about her, which you can gear on her website: http://www.faithnolan.org/.

On February 2, 2016, Historica Canada featured Desmond in a Heritage Minute, filmed in High River, Alberta, in June 2015. The video features Kandyse McClure as Viola Desmond. She became the first historical woman of colour to feature in a Heritage Minute.

Google’s July 6, 2018 Doodle, created by Google artist Sophie Diao, celebrates the life and legacy of Viola Desmond, and was distributed across Canada.

About the Apology and Pardon:

On April 14, 2010, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Mayann Francis, on the advice of Premier Darrell Dexter, invoked the Royal Prerogative and granted Desmond a posthumous free pardon, the first such to be granted in Canada. The free pardon, an extraordinary remedy granted under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy only in the rarest of circumstances and the first one granted posthumously, differs from a simple pardon in that it is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was in error. Francis, herself a Black Canadian, remarked: “Here I am, 64 years later – a black woman giving freedom to another black woman”, about her signing of the pardon.

The Government of Nova Scotia also apologized. Desmond’s younger sister Wanda Robson and Graham Reynolds, a professor of Cape Breton University, worked with the Government of Nova Scotia to ensure that Desmond’s name was cleared, there was a public acknowledgement of the injustice and Nova Scotia reaffirmed its commitment to Human Rights. The provincial government declared the first Nova Scotia Heritage Day in her honor in February 2015. Desmond’s portrait also hangs in Government House in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Viola Desmond died on February 7, 1965 (aged 50) in New York City, New York, U.S. Her resting place is the Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax.