Viola Desmond’s trailblazing act of defiance was overlooked for decades by most Canadians. Not anymore. Desmond’s image now graces the new $10 Canadian bill.
The Canadian Press
By Elise Harding-DavisOn Nov. 19, 2018, Viola Desmond officially began appearing on Canada’s $10 bill. Her image replaces Sir John A. Macdonald’s. An historic day! The bill is the first vertically oriented banknote in Canada, and includes a picture of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a passage from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and an eagle feather, which the Bank of Canada said represents the “ongoing journey toward recognizing rights and freedoms for Indigenous Peoples.” Desmond becomes the first Black person/non-royal woman on regularly circulating Canadian money.Viola Davis was born in Nova Scotia in 1914. Motivated by her parents’ hard work and community involvement, Desmond aspired to build a cosmetics empire. As a Black woman in the 1930s and 1940s, Viola Desmond was a trailblazer. Her ambition was to own a hairdressing business. Because beauty schools in Halifax restricted Black women’s admission, Viola travelled to Montreal and several states to pursue relevant courses. She received a diploma from the renowned Apex College of Beauty Culture and Hairdressing in Atlantic City.After a teaching stint in two racially-segregated schools she began studying at the Montreal Field Beauty Culture School which accepted Black applicants. She furthered her training in Atlantic City and New York. In 1937, Desmond set up Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax catering to Black women where they also socialized. But her vision expanded. Viola established the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, drawing students across eastern Canada.Another venture, manufacturing and marketing Vi’s Beauty Products, was generating huge orders. She made positive inroads as both an entrepreneur and a role model. Desmond taught hair dressing/cosmetology allowing her to mentor black women across the country. Additionally, she was a Civil Rights pioneer.Desmond made history by refusing to give up her seat in the “white” section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, on Nov. 8, 1946. On a business trip to Halifax to sell her line of black hair-care products, her car broke down. Repairs would take until the next day, so Viola decided to see a movie. She bought a 30-cent ticket. After taking a seat an usher ordered her to the balcony. Returning to the box office, she attempted to pay the 10-cent difference for a main floor seat; she was refused. Suddenly Viola realized the theatre was segregated; black people could only sit in the balcony. Desmond grasped she was being targeted because of her skin tone. Defiantly, she retook her main floor seat. Arrested, the police dragged her from the theatre. Desmond spent 12 terrifying hours sitting up, white gloves on, the image of dignity.The next day Viola was found guilty of defrauding the Province of Nova Scotia of one cent in taxes. She testified that she tried to pay the difference between the two ticket prices, but her offer was refused. Viola was fined 26 dollars (today, three hundred dollars). Six of those dollars were awarded to the manager of the Roseland Theatre, listed in the proceedings as prosecutor. Desmond never received counsel, nor was she informed that she was entitled to any. Clearly, Desmond’s real offence was violating the implicit rule that Blacks were to sit in segregated balcony seats, alienated from White persons on the main floor. She launched an appeal helped by the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Viola’s case shone light on Canada’s growing civil rights movement and Canada’s ugly racism. This incident became one of the most high-profile cases of discrimination in Canadian history.That chapter haunted Desmond. She divorced, shut down her business and moved away form Nova Scotia seeking new opportunities and a fresh start. In 1965 she died alone in the USA at 50. In 2010 she received a posthumous apology. Accolades followed, a postage stamp, a Halifax Transit ferry named after her plus a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. Black History Month, which just finished, showed pride in Canada’s progress for vindicating Civil Rights Pioneer Viola Desmond.Elise Harding-Davis is an African Canadian Historian living in Harrow