Black History Month Spotlight: Viola Desmond


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.



If you really think about it food plays a significant part in your life. It is something you consume everyday and it is essential for you to keep functioning. Aside from these reasons, food is also traditionally part of many major life events and functions. Your birthdays probably included a cake, weddings serve a dinner and have a cake, holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving focus around a traditional meal, and even funerals typically have a reception where refreshments are served. Food is also often used as a means to commemorate a special event in your life. A lot of the time we celebrate with a meal such as graduating from your program, or have a potluck style lunch at work to wish a fellow co-worker farewell.

In addition, many cultures have staple ingredients and signature dishes that define their cuisine. When you think about Canadian culture, what comes to your mind if I ask you “what is a classic Canadian dish?” As a matter of fact, I cannot really come up with a definitive answer. A plate of meat and potatoes is what I can picture in my head, but is this truly representative? One thing about Canadians in today’s society is that we are so diverse and multicultural. Especially in major metropolitan cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, the population is extremely varied. The Ryerson campus itself is right in the heart of Toronto’s downtown core. When you take a look at the population of students, professors, and staff, many of us commute from all over Toronto and the GTA. This provides a good representation of the diversity of Toronto itself, and in fact based on its demographics, it is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. So going back to food and my original thought on what is a classic Canadian dish, I would say that there is probably no one dish, but Canadian cuisine incorporates a mosaic of culture and ethnicity.

What this means is that it is important for individuals working with the public to have cultural competency, which includes an awareness of your own cultural worldview and the ability to effectively work with people across cultures. This is especially important in the health care sector, where you are trying to help someone. In relation to food, healthy choices offer nutrition therapy and help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Therefore, it is imperative for nutrition professionals to have an understanding of socially constructed meanings of cuisine, culture, multiculturalism, race and ethnicity. Accordingly, in my program, I was fortunate enough to take a course called Social and Cultural Dimensions of Food. I developed knowledge regarding the influences of Canadian immigration policy on culture and cuisine, and completed a food adventure project. For this project, I worked in a small group and researched a food item that we thought would be unfamiliar to many of our colleagues. We gave a presentation and prepared a recipe with the item as an ingredient for sampling. This project promoted a sense of adventurousness and willingness to try new foods, and here are a few I would like to share with you:

  • Sapodilla: This is a fruit native to Southern and Central America and is traditionally eaten raw. Many modern day cooks have used the fruit in numerous recipes including milkshakes and desserts.
  • Indian Karela or Bitter Gourd: It is classified as a fruit due to its fibrous seed content, although many refer to it as a vegetable. It looks similar to a cucumber and grows in tropical climates. It is often fried and eaten as a side dish or in curries.
  • Granadilla: This is a fruit from the passion fruit family and is native to Colombia. It is generally consumed raw, however, the skin is edible, but only the seeds, juice and pulp are usually consumed. It is used in fruit salads, daiquiris, and in baked goods.
  • Chayote: The chayote is also known as the pear squash or vegetable pear and it originated in Mexico. There are many varieties but the light green and pear-shaped one is the most common. It can be eaten raw or cooked in soups, stews or used in salads.
  • Okra: Okra is a vegetable that is thin, smooth in texture, and slightly curved. It is a staple ingredient in the Middle East, India, South and West Africa, and in Louisiana (Cajun and Creole cooking). It can be served raw, marinated in salads, or cooked (fried, roasted, or stewed).

rsz_presentation3”Give these foods a try if you have not already! They can all be found in major supermarkets around Toronto. Keep in mind, food is central to your daily life and identifying who you are. Like all people, individuals from culturally diverse populations have differing skills, knowledge, and values. It is important to understand people as individuals within the context of cultural competence and accepting and respecting differences within and between cultures.