As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, this week, we shed light on a historic Black Canadian figure. Viola Desmond was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She initially trained to become a teacher but decided to change career paths. She was a successful businesswoman who owned a barbershop and hairdressing salon business in partnership with her husband, Jack Desmond. In the midst of her business’ expansion, Viola left for New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946 to pursue a brighter future for her business.
It is in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia where Viola Desmond makes a name for herself as one of the most influential and remarkable people – especially as a woman – during times of segregation between Blacks and Whites. Viola Desmond innocently went to the movie theatres one night in New Glasgow and decided to take a seat in the main floor of the theatre. Unbeknownst to her, this specific theatre had specific tickets for African Canadians – who should be seated in the balcony area – and White Canadians – who may be seated in the main floor of the theatre, where the movie can be better seen. Upon being asked to leave her seat and relocate to the segregated seat she was intended to sit in, she refused. The police were called and Viola Desmond was charged without being advised of her right, ending in her spending the night in jail.
The following morning, she paid the fine of $20 for the alleged crime and was charged with defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia with the difference in tax between a ground floor ticket at the movie theatres and a balcony seat ticket. The difference amounted to approximately one cent.
Desmond courageously decided to fight the charges against her, understanding that the issue was not surrounding around the idea that it was tax evasion, but rather, inherently racist. Viola Desmond took the case to court, where she was able to gain public opinion on the matter both locally in her own community, nationally, and internationally. This issue raised significant awareness on segregation within Canada.
Viola Desmond’s arrest quickly caught the attention of the Black Canadian community. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) raised money to per her fine and help her to fight against her charges. Carrie best – the founder of Nova Scotia’s first Black owned and operated newspaper, publicized her story in order to truly amplify her message and spread awareness.
As a result of the garnered attention generated by Demond’s case, the government of Nova Scotia had no choice but to eliminate segregation laws. In 1954, the government completed repealed them.
This was quite a significant turning point in the history of segregation within Canada as it revealed and exposed the fact that segregation was still real and alive within Canadian borders. At that time, there was a notion that Canada was the safest place for Black people who are being racially discriminated and segregated internationally to go to. Canada was put on a pedestal for being “free of segregation and racial discrimination,” when in reality, such practices were still very much alive and not eradicated. This event urged the Canadian community – who was expected to be an ally in the Black Civil Rights Movement – to take corrective action and implement more inclusive and culturally-aware laws and policies into legislation. It significantly sparked the wave of Canadian Black Civil Rights movement, urging Canadians to explore, expose, and correct issues surrounding racism and racial discrimination within our own borders.
This event truly catapulted Canada’s policies and legislations towards a more progressive and inclusive direction. The Canadian government began consciously implementing more diverse, multicultural, and inclusive laws in the years to follow that incorporates Black Canadians into Canadian culture as valued members of society. As a result of the corrective action that followed after this event, Canadian people adopted a more culturally aware, inclusive, and diverse ideology about race. The issue of racism was brought to the forefront of social justice issues and light was being shed on racial discrimination as being very much so present in Canadian society, contrary to popular opinion.
This event ignited a very important movement in Canadian society. It sparked the discussion and the need for action towards a society that is built on a foundation of diversity and multiculturalism. Viola Desmond remains an influential historical figure in Canadian history who, despite how little her action back then may have seemed, took an action that is not only significant but extremely powerful.