Nova Scotian Entrepreneur and Community builder honored
The Bank of Canada’s decision to put Viola Desmond on the new Canadian $10 bill is a fitting tribute to a woman who framed a legacy of activism, entrepreneurship and community development.
On December 8, Bank of Canada Governor Stephen S. Poloz, together with Minister of Finance Bill Morneau and Minister of Status of Women Patty Hajdu announced that Viola Desmond be featured on a new bank note, expected in late 2018.
This will mark the first time that a portrait of a Canadian woman will be featured on a regularly circulating bill.
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1914, Desmond etched her name in the annals of Canadian history after she stood up to the discriminatory policies of a theatre in New Glasgow in 1946.
Her stand landed her in prison and thrust her into an extended legal battle with the province of Nova Scotia that she lost, but many say she opened the way to generating a greater dialogue on issues of race across Canada.
Her court case is believed to be the first known legal challenge against racial segregation undertaken by a Black woman in Canada.
Although it took place more that 70 years ago, Desmond’s case was kept in the public spotlight through the activism of her younger sister, Wanda Robson, who is 86 years old today.
Her long running efforts to tell Desmond’s story included the publication of a book in 2010, Sister to Courage, and highlighted by this latest designation. In making the announcement, Minister Morneau said, “… Viola Desmond’s own story reminds all of us that big change can start with moments of dignity and bravery. She represents courage, strength and determination—qualities we should all aspire to everyday.”
While Minister Hajdu added that: “Many extraordinary women could have been on this next bank note, and the search and decision-making process were extremely thorough. The choice of Viola Desmond reminds us that Canada is a diverse country where everyone deserves equality and respect.”
Robson bookmarked the announcement saying, “It’s a big day to have a woman on a bank note, but it’s an especially big day to have your big sister on a bank note. Our family is extremely proud and honoured.”
Desmond grew up in a solid middle class home and taught in two segregated schools before embarking on a career in the hair and beauty industry.
After training at a leading institution in Montreal, she opened a hair-styling salon, Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax that catered primarily to the Black community, providing jobs and mentorship to young Black women.
She also opened a beauty school, The Desmond School of Beauty Culture, training a generation of beauticians and attempting to set the course for empowering the community as her graduates in turn began opening salons across the city. She also had a successful line of beauty products.
On the evening of November 8, 1946 she was on her way to Sydney, Nova Scotia when her car broke down and stalled in New Glasgow, a small bedroom community where she decided to spend the night at a hotel and take in a movie at the Roseland Theatre.
The saga of her life started when she decided to buy a ticket for the main floor of the theatre, but instead was given one for the Balcony, where Blacks are expected to sit. No sooner had she taken her seat in the main floor than the manager showed up and asked her to move. She refused. She offered to pay the one or two cent difference.
What happened next put into play the most outrageous travesty of justice in Canadian history in the realm of race relations.
The manger, together with the police, is said to have dragged Desmond out of the cinema, injuring her hips and her legs and took her to the police station where she was locked up for the night. (It’s said that in her defiance, she sat “bolt upright all night.”)
Next day she was taken to court and charged with attempting to defraud the provincial government based on her alleged refusal to pay a one cent amusement tax, which was the difference in tax between the ticket prices for the main floor and the upstairs balcony.
She didn’t have access to a lawyer nor counsel as she stood before the magistrate and the theatre manager who was listening to the prosecutor. Like a Native American in one of those John Wayne movies, Ms. Desmond didn’t stand a chance.
By the time the kangaroo court was closed she was fined $26, with $6 going to the theatre manager for his troubles.
But Viola Desmond refused to follow the advice of her husband, who suggested that they should “take it to the Lord with a prayer.” Instead, with the assistance of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) and the iconic community newspaper, The Clarion, which was then published by Carrie Best, she used money raised in a campaign to help her cause, to bring a civil suit against the theatre and the manager.
On the advice of her white lawyer the suit had nothing to do with discrimination, civil rights or human rights as there was never a judgment on behalf of any plaintiff in those issues in Nova Scotia at the time. Still Desmond was unsuccessful. She was also unsuccessful in trying to get the Nova Scotia Supreme Court to reverse her criminal conviction.
But her true legacy hinges on her stand against the injustices meted out to her, first by the Roseland Theatre and its management then by the Nova Scotia justice system. Desmond took her stand a good nine years before the iconic Rosa Parks chose not to be moved by racism and discrimination, but her actions never drew the spotlights.
However, at the time it provided an impetus for community activism against the latent Jim Crowism that was routine in Nova Scotia.
Her story didn’t end well. Racism and discrimination have a way of getting to you. Her marriage fell apart. She walked away from her business. She left Nova Scotia and moved to Montreal, then to New York where she died of internal bleeding on February 7, 1965.
On April 15, 2010, Desmond received a posthumous pardon from the Nova Scotia government, which was granted by Nova Scotia’s first Black Lieutenant Governor, Mayann Francis. The pardon was accompanied by a public declaration and apology from then-Premier Darrell Dexter, who indicated that charges should never have been laid and that her conviction was a miscarriage of justice.
Like the minister said, the decision to place Viola Desmond on the new $10 bill is a move by Canada to recognize individual courage and determination in a nation that still has to come to terms with the debilitating impact that discrimination and alienation can have on individuals and groups.
She was chosen from a field of 26,300 names submitted to the Bank for consideration, a field that was whittled down to 461 by an advisory council of important Canadians. The Minister of Finance made the final choice. The new $10 note is expected in late 2018.