Viola Desmond, 1914-1965
Viola Desmond, 1914-1965
Viola Desmond was a businesswoman, entrepreneur, and Canadian civil rights activist. She owned a beauty salon in Nova Scotia where she mentored young Black women. In November 1946, Desmond was arrested for refusing to leave the whites-only section of a movie theatre. She was posthumously pardoned in 2010, and in 2018 became the first Canadian woman on a bank note, the $10 bill.
Viola Desmond was brought up in a large middle-class Black family in Halifax, where her father was a respected member of the Black community.
She began her career teaching at racially-segregated schools for Black students, before deciding to study at a beauty school in Montréal, one of the few that would accept Black students. She continued her studies at various schools in the United States before returning to Halifax to open Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture, and later, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, drawing applicants from New Brunswick and Quebec.
In November 1946, Desmond was on her way to a business meeting when her car broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. To pass the time while her car was fixed, she went to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre. Though she asked for a ticket for the main floor, the cashier gave her a ticket for the balcony.
Desmond was stopped by the usher on the way to her seat. Her ticket was not for the main floor. When she returned to the cashier, she was told that main floor tickets would not be sold to someone like her. Though not officially segregated, the unwritten rule was that white customers sat on the main floor, while Black customers sat in the balcony.
Nevertheless, Desmond returned to the main floor and took a seat. She was forcefully removed from the theatre by the manager, and arrested. She was charged with not paying a tax on the ticket, even though her offers to pay the difference were ignored.
Her case went to trial and she was offered no legal counsel: she was convicted and fined $26. Not once during the proceedings was race mentioned. While there was no official segregation in Canada, it had not yet been made illegal, making it difficult for Black people at the time to take action against oppressive systems in society.
Desmond died in 1965. Decades later, her sister, Wanda Robson, was prompted to speak out about the injustice her sister had faced. In 2010, Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon by Nova Scotia’s first African-Nova Scotian governor, Mayann Francis.
Fleurs de Villes and Hot Docs honour Viola Desmond with a floral mannequin in Manulife Centre. Hot Docs’ free screening series, For Viola, showcases BIPOC-led stories and filmmakers as part of its commitment to inclusivity for BIPOC creators and audience members alike.