Born on July 6, 1914, Viola Irene Desmond was a Canadian civil rights activist and businesswoman. Of Black Nova Scotian descent, in 1946, she famously challenged racial segregation in Canada by refusing to leave a whites-only area of the Roseland Theatre. Her case is one of the most publicized incidents in Canada about racial discrimination and many believe she was integral for starting the modern civil rights movement in Canada.
Desmond was in 2010 granted a posthumous pardon, as Canada took steps to rectify its history of racial discrimination. The government of Nova Scotia issued a formal apology and acknowledged she was rightfully resisting the tragedy that is racial discrimination. And then in 2018, her civil rights activism was formally honored when the Bank of Canada printed Desmond on the front of a $10 bill.
As the story goes Viola Desmond, a hair salon owner, was unaware the theatre was segregated and sat in a main-floor seat. When she refused to move to the balcony, she was arrested and dragged out of the theatre, ending up with a night in prison. For many, this may have been the end of the story, but Desmond refused the charges against her and went all the way to Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court.
The rules of segregation were unwritten, therefore, existing laws were used to sanction her for breaking the unwritten rules. Desmond was charged with tax evasion because the ticket for the white-only area was more expensive, the charge was for failing to pay the full tax on the ticket. A difference which was only one cent.
Canadian racism was different than the in your face racism that happened in the United States, but unfortunately, it still existed and was equally as horrible. Desmond realized she was in a position to challenge it, being a successful businesswoman, and after her family gave her their support she did just that. Fighting out against the injustice of the system, and she did inspire the future civil rights movements in Canada. Though sadly, the cost for herself was very high, with the increased publicity causing the end of her marriage and that she had to abandon her business.