The first Canadian woman, the first Black person and the first non-Royal to grace the Canadian Dollar Bill is Viola Irene Desmond. A notable figure in the fight for the rights of black people in Canada. She was a Canadian businesswoman and a civil rights activist. She was of Black Nova Scotia descent. Widely known for challenging racial discrimination in a cinema in Nova Scotia. She bluntly refused to leave a whites-only area in the Roseland Theatre in 1946.
In response to her action, the state convicted her for a minor tax violation for the one-cent tax difference; this was because the seat she used was more expensive than the seat she paid for.
The incident with Viola Irene Desmond is one of the most publicized cases of racial discrimination in Canadian history. This helped begin the modern civil rights movements in Canada. She founded the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, an institution that provided training to support increased employment in Black women in Canada.
The Early Life of Viola Irene Desmond
She was born on July 6 1914, one of the ten children belonging to James Albert and Gwendolyn Irene Johnson Davis.
Viola spent her growing years with her grandparents. They were active in the black community in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her mother was white and her father black.
Interracial marriages were uncommon at the time. Her father had to work as a stevedore till he became a barber.
Opportunities for growth
As she grew, she noticed a lack in professional hair and skin-care products to care for black women’s hair. Viola, then set out to meet this need but because of the discrimination against blacks, she was not allowed to be a beautician in Halifax.
Later, she left for Montreal, Atlantic City and received training as a beautician. She also trained at Madam C.J. Walker’s beauty school in New York. Viola returned to Halifax after her training to start her own salon. It was called Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture. She had an excellent clientele that included Portia White and Gwen Johnson; and later became the first black nurse in Novia Scotia.
Also, she established ‘The Desmond School of Beauty Culture’ so that black women did not have to travel far to receive proper beauty training.
Viola catered to black women in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec. The school provided the skills needed to help women start businesses and increased the number of jobs open to black women in their communities. At least fifteen women who were previously denied admission in white-only training schools graduated from her school.
She started her own line of beauty products called Vi’s Beauty Products. She marketed and sold them herself.
The Arrest of Viola Irene Desmond
She got into business with her husband Jack Desmond, they had a salon that was a barbershop, and a hairdressing salon located on Gottingen Street.
While on a business trip to sell her beauty products in Sydney on November 8, 1946, her car broke down in New Glasgow. She had to wait a day before the parts for fixing her car became available. While waiting, she chose to see a film, The Dark Mirror, starring Olivia de Havilland at the Roseland Film Theatre.
Segregation Laws in New Glasgow
According to the laws in Nova Scotia, there was no policy in support of segregation and there was no sign indicating any such policy.
In spite of the lack of signs, the management had a custom of reserving the main floor seats for white patrons. This discriminatory practise was permitted in all Canadian provinces.
Desmond got a ticket for the balcony. Unaware of the practice of segregation in that theatre, and visually nearsighted, she sat in the floor section close to the screen.
Until she was asked to change seats, she did not realize their practice. She refused to move because she had a better view from the main floor.
When she requested that her tickets be changed with an additional cost, she was refused and forcefully removed from the theatre. She sustained an injury to her hip. She spent 12 hours in jail and paid a $20 fine for tax evasion.
The tax on the balcony ticket, which cost 30 cents, was two cents. The tax on the main floor ticket, which cost $40, was three cents. She was convicted of depriving the government of one cent in tax. She stayed a night in jail, and they failed to inform her of the right to legal advice, a lawyer or bail.
Subsequently, she returned to Halifax and after discussing the incident with her husband, he asked her to let it go. She sought the advice of the leaders of her church, the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. Minister Pearly Oliver and his wife Pearline, advised her to take action. With their support, she made the decision to fight the charge in court.
The Many Trials of Fighting For Justice
When she made the decision to fight the charge, Carrie Best broke the story in the first edition of the Clarion. It was the first black-owned and published Nova Scotia newspaper. Carrie Best covered the story of Desmond on the front. This media personality had previously confronted the racial segregation policy at the Roseland Theatre.
With the support of her church and the Novia Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), Desmond hired Frederick William Bissett as her lawyer. He represented her on criminal trials and tried to file a lawsuit against the Roseland Theatre. He was unsuccessful.
The government insisted during every trial that it was a case of tax evasion. The theatre only agreed to sell her a balcony ticket and she insisted on seating in the main floor seat, thus she was one cent short in her tax payment.
Her lawyer tried to defend her via a judicial review instead of appealing the original conviction and it was disastrous; however her case was dismissed.
She was not billed by her lawyer and the money was then donated to William Pearly Oliver’s newly established Novia Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP).
No justice at all
Sadly, her marriage ended. It was possibly due to the trial and their encounter with the legal system in Nova Scotia. She closed her business and relocated to Montreal where she enrolled in a business college; and finally settled in New York City where she died in February 1965 at the age of 50. Viola was buried at Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax, Novia Scotia.
Her pastor William Pearly reflected on her legacy 15 years later saying:
‘…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…’
Viola Irene Desmond is often compared to Rosa Parks as they both challenged the status quo of their time by refusing to vacate seats in ‘Whites Only’ sections.
Apology and pardon
On April 14, 2020, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Maryann Francis invoked the Royal Prerogative and granted Viola Desmond a posthumous free pardon. It was the first of its kind in Canada.
The action was carried out because of the advice of Premier Darrell Dexter. It was 64 years too late.
The free pardon is an extraordinary remedy granted under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy only in the rarest of circumstances. It is the first one to be granted posthumously. It differs from a simple pardon because it is based on a recognition that a conviction was in error and acknowledgement that the victim was innocent.
Francis who is also 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 apologized
In 2010, Viola Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon, the first of its kind in Canada. The Crown-in-Right of Nova Scotia also apologized for prosecuting her for tax evasion. They acknowledged that she was resisting racial discrimination.
The younger sister of Viola Desmond, Wanda Robson and a professor of Cape Breton University, Graham Reynolds, 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 Nova Scotia Heritage Day was declared in her honour in February 2015. Her portrait hangs in Government House in Halifax Novia Scotia.
A symbolic repayment of her original court fees was paid to her only surviving family member, Robson in 2021 by the government of Nova Scotia. It was prompted by a request from an Ontario high school student, Varishini Deochand.
Robson disclosed her intention to use the money in making a one-time donation for a scholarship at Cape Breton University. In response, the Province increased the repayment from the current valuation of $368.29 to $1000. They also issued a commemorative cheque to display its legislature. The original court costs were $26.
First Black Person and non-Royal to Grace to Canadian $10
On December 8, 2016, Viola Desmond was chosen as the first Canadian woman to appear on her own on the ten-dollar note after being on a shortlist of five. She is the first Black person and non-Royal to feature on the $10 bill. On November 26, 2018, the Bank of Canada released a new design for the $10 bill and celebrated her achievements in the civil rights movement.
In February 2019, Royal Canadian Mint announced the release of the first Black History Month coin, it was a pure silver coin featuring Viola Desmond.