There are some people who sit on the sidelines and watch history unravel, and there are some who change its very course in the blink of an eye. We celebrate the latter for they’re the ones who bring change and revolution. They shake the world upside down only to make it right-side up. In light of Black History Month, Canadians and people around the world remember the contributions and achievements that Black individuals have made in order to pave a path for equality and peace today. Indeed, there are numerous notable individuals who make the list; however, we’d like to put the spotlight on Viola Desmond, civil libertarian, entrepreneur, and the first Canadian woman to ever be celebrated on the face of the $10 bill.
Viola Irene Desmond was born and raised by her parents among 10 other siblings in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Shortly after finishing high school, Viola taught for two years at segregated black schools. Eventually, she decided to change her career path to become a beautician. In a world where women, especially black women, were not given many opportunities, Viola challenged the status quo and succeeded. Desmond overcame barriers of race, gender, and economic class, all in order to go after her holy grail of starting her own business and opening a salon.
Most beauty schools in Halifax refused black students, so Desmond took matters into her own hands and went to both Montreal and the United States for her professional training. After completing beauty school, she moved back to Halifax to open her own salon. Having experienced the hardships and adversities of entering the beauty industry as a black woman, Desmond also began to train and mentor other women from across Eastern Canada. Eventually, her business expanded across the province, giving young black women the opportunity for employment and a foothold in entrepreneurship. Desmond’s popularity began to grow as she created a line of hair and cosmetic products, exclusively for black women.
However, things changed in November 1946 when Desmond was on a business trip and her car had broken down in New Glasgow. While waiting to get her car fixed, Desmond decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre. Although Desmond could afford a ticket on the main floor, she was refused service and was told to sit on the balcony, as the theatre had been segregated. Regardless, Desmond sat, quietly and unassumingly, in the whites-only section of the theatre. Not long after, the theatre staff confronted her and asked her to leave her seat for which she refused, claiming that she had purchased a ticket and was willing to pay the difference. As a result, the staff called the officials and Desmond was removed from the theatre by force.
Desmond was arrested for sitting in the wrong section. She was accused of not paying the one-cent tax difference between the balcony and main floor seats. During the trial for her case, Desmond was not informed that she was entitled to a lawyer. Instead, she was immediately put on trial, fined $26, and charged on the account of defrauding the government for refusing to pay the amusement tax, equivalent to one cent.
Knowing that she had done nothing wrong and that the problem was rooted in something much deeper, Desmond decided to fight the charges. She knew that the problem was not so much about tax evasion, as it was about racial discrimination. In reality, it wasn’t the refusal to pay the one-cent tax but rather her opposition to segregation that threatened the officials. The segregation which existed at the time was common, pervasive, and legal in Canada; in essence, it was simply a fact of life. By fighting these charges, Desmond shed light on the bigotry against Blacks in Nova Scotia and made it clear that it violated their fundamental rights.
Although no legal action was taken in regards to the case, Desmond influenced the beginning of a movement toward social equality for all individuals, despite their race or ethnicity. Indeed, this change was gradual and guarded, but it paved the way for civil rights for Black people, and consequently other minorities in Nova Scotia and Canada at large. Individuals were no longer willing to live as second-class citizens in their own country and they began to challenge the current state of affairs.
Eventually, segregation came to an end in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada. Although we will never know exactly how much Viola Desmond contributed to this, we do know that her efforts did not go unnoticed. Thanks to the courageous actions of Desmond and many other individuals who fought for their fundamental rights and freedoms, we now live in a country that we are proud to call home. Canada has greatly evolved since the 1940s, but who would have known that simple standing up for one’s rights would leave such a deep imprint on the history of Canada.