Viola Desmond was a Canadian businesswoman and civil libertarian who built a career as a beautician and served as a mentor to young black women in Nova Scotia through her Desmond School of Beauty Culture. She is celebrated for her courageous acts of refusing discrimination.
In 1946, Viola Desmond refused to leave the segregated whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She was then arrested, jailed overnight, and convicted without legal representation for an obscure tax offense. The Nova Scotian community tried to assist her in appealing the charges, however, they were unable to remove the charges against her, resulting in her remaining unpardoned in her lifetime. Viola Desmond’s courageous refusal to accept an act of racial discrimination provided inspiration to later generations. In 2010, Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis issued Desmond a free pardon. In December 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Viola Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to be featured on the $10 banknote, which was later released on November 19, 2018.
In 2018, Viola Desmond was named a National Historic Person by the Canadian Government.
Evening of Arrest
On the evening of November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond made an unplanned stop in the small community of New Glasgow after her car broke down on her way to a business meeting in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Since the repair was going to take several hours, she arranged for a hotel room and decided to pass the time by watching a movie.
At the Roseland Theatre, Viola requested a ticket for a seat on the main floor. However, the ticket seller handed Desmond a ticket to the balcony instead, the seating generally reserved for non-white customers. When she walked into the main floor seating area, she was challenged by the ticket taker, who told her that her ticket was for upstairs seating, where she would have to move. Thinking that a mistake had been made, Viola returned to the cashier and asked for her ticket to be exchanged. However, the cashier refused and said that they were not permitted to sell tickets to “you people.” Viola realized the cashier was referring to the color of her skin. Viola went back to the theatre and sat on the main floor of the theatre despite not having the proper ticket. Viola was then confronted by the manager who argued that the theatre had the right to refuse admission to any objectionable person.
Desmond pointed out that she had not been refused admission and that, in fact, she had been sold the ticket which she still held in her hand. She had tried to exchange her ticket for a main floor ticket and was willing to pay the difference in cost but was refused. When Viola refused to leave her seat, the police were called and Viola was dragged out of the theatre. During this, Viola injured her knee and hip and was taken to jail. She was held in a cell overnight; she was shocked and frightened, however, she maintained her composure and stayed up all night.
Viola was brought to court the next day and charged with attempting to defraud the provincial government. This was based on her alleged refusal to pay a one-cent amusement tax, which was the difference between the main floor and balcony ticket prices. Even though she indicated to the theatre manager that she was willing to pay the difference between the two tickets, the manager refused. The judge fined her $26, of which $6 was awarded to the manager of the Roseland Theatre, who was listed in the court proceedings as the prosecutor. Viola did not have any legal representation during the trial.
Decades after Viola Desmond’s death, her story began to receive public attention through the efforts of her sister, Wanda Robson. In 2017, Viola Desmond was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame under the category of Philanthropy & Humanities. In January 2018, she was named a National Historic Person by the Canadian Government. The Government of Nova Scotia repaid an adjusted amount of Viola’s fine to her sister Wanda in February 2021. Wanda used $1000 to fund a scholarship at Cape Breton University.