By Mandy Nyarko
Viola Desmond’s experiences inspired the civil rights movement in Canada and led to the repeal of segregation laws in Nova Scotia by 1954 yet this crucial piece of Canadian history is often overlooked or forgotten.
Viola exemplified immense bravery and a deep resolve to fight for her human rights; her story is a tale of courage and fearlessness in the face of racism and injustice.
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia on July 6, 1914, Viola Desmond (née Davis), was a successful black entrepreneur who received training as a beautician at the Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal, one of the few schools in Canada that admitted black applicants. (She had previously been a teacher at a segregated school.) Viola and her husband Jack Desmond established a joint beauty parlor and barbershop to serve the black community in Halifax.
The story begins on the evening of November 8, 1946, almost a decade before the 1955 Montgomery [Alabama] Bus Boycott, which was triggered when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus. While travelling to Sydney, Nova Scotia for a business meeting, Viola experienced car trouble in New Glasgow. Informed that the repairs would take a few hours, she decided to pass the time by seeing a film at the Roseland Theatre. At the ticket stand, Viola requested a seat on the main floor, but was issued a ticket for a balcony seat instead. As she made her way to a main floor seat, she was accosted by a theatre employee, who told her that she must move up to the balcony as she was not in possession of the correct ticket.
Believing that there had been a mistake, Viola returned to the ticket stand where she was told that, as policy, the theatre did not provide main floor seats to black patrons. Although racial segregation was not entrenched in Canadian law at the time, it existed informally as an unwritten rule in which people understood their 'place' in society. The Roseland Theatre was a prime example of this: it was common knowledge that main floor seats were reserved for white people only while the balcony was designated for black people.
Even though Viola offered to pay the one cent cost difference between the main floor and balcony seats, she was denied her ticket. Unwilling to accept this discriminatory treatment, Viola returned to the main floor. When she refused to vacate the seat, she was forcibly removed from the theatre by a police officer, resulting in injury to her knee and hip. She spent the night in jail and in the morning was charged with attempting to defraud the provincial government based on a false account that she had declined to pay the one cent tax difference. Despite the ordeal she had suffered, Viola sat upright all night in the jail cell as a sign of defiance and protest.
Viola was not advised of her rights and, during the trial, issues around anti-black racism were never addressed. She was convicted and fined $26 (the equivalent of $250 today), six dollars of which were granted to the Roseland Theatre manager. At the encouragement and support of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Viola tried to appeal the conviction at the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia but this proved futile and the conviction remained on her record. Eventually, Viola left the country, and she died in 1965 in New York City.
On April 15, 2010, almost 65 years after the incident, Viola was given a posthumous pardon – the first ever granted – by the government of Nova Scotia. It acknowledged that the charges brought against Viola, and her arrest, were unjust. Her descendants were also issued an apology by Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, who said, “This is a historic day for the province of Nova Scotia and a chance for us to finally right the wrong done to Mrs. Desmond and her family. This is also an opportunity for us to acknowledge the incredibly brave actions of a woman who took a stand against racism and segregation.”
Viola's sister Wanda Robson remarked, “What happened to my sister is part of our history and needs to remain intact. We must learn from our history so we do not repeat it. If my parents were here today, it would warm their hearts to see Viola recognized as a true Canadian hero.”
The province of Nova Scotia will honour Viola on the inaugural Nova Scotia Heritage Day on February 16, 2015. The day, designated as the third Monday in February, is intended to recognize a different historical figure each year.