By Natasha Eklund
When thinking about fighting against racial segregation, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955 often comes to mind. When thinking of influential women in Canada, the Famous Five (Irene Parlby, Louis McKinny, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards and Nellie McClung) and their efforts for women’s rights in the early 20th century are thought of. However, one prominent Canadian woman who was an inspiration within her community and fought against the racial discrimination is often overlooked, and her name is Viola Desmond.
As of November 19, 2018, you may start to see the new $10 Canadian bills in circulation which picture Viola Desmond, a Canadian-born woman responsible for bringing awareness and fighting against the racism within Canada.
Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Viola was first educated as a teacher, but her entrepreneurial spirit lead her to opening her own Beauty Salon. However, it was not easy for her to accomplish this; she immediately faced obstacles as many Beauty Schools would not allow admission based on her race. Viola went to Montreal, New York, and New Jersey to achieve the proper training, and she finally received her diploma from the Apex College of Beauty Culture and Hairdressing in Atlantic City.
Once Viola accomplished her training, she went into business with her husband, Jack Desmond, who already had his own barbershop on Gottingen Street, Halifax. Their combined businesses was established as Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in 1937. This shop quickly became a local gathering spot within their community, and Viola continued to dream of a larger business by creating her own School of Beauty Culture which welcomed students from across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec. Viola took another step forward, producing and manufacturing her very own Vi’s Beauty Products, which quickly generated orders across Nova Scotia. Already, Viola was inspiring her clients and members of her community for her hard work and achievements.
While on a trip to Sydney, Nova Scotia, Viola’s car broke down in New Glasgow on November 8, 1946. While waiting for the repairs, she decided to go to a movie at Roseland Theatre to pass the time. After purchasing her ticket, Viola choose a seat on the main floor and was quickly told her ticket was for the balcony seating. Approaching the cashier, Viola asked to exchange the ticket and pay the one cent difference for a seat on the floor which offered a better view but the cashier informed her that she was “not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.”
It quickly became apparent to Viola that this theatre sold tickets based on race and segregated the White community from the Black. Strongly bothered by this, Viola returned to the main floor and refused to leave her seat when confronted by the theatre’s manager, who in response called the police.
The police forcibly removed Viola from the theater, injuring her hip in the process. She was then arrested, not read her rights, thrown in jail for 12 hours, and then fined for tax evasion for not paying the one-cent seat difference. Due to this outrageous act, Viola chose to fight the charges that were laid against her as it was clear it was not about the one cent difference but rather based on racism. Unfortunately, her case in court lost, but it was highly publicized, which struck a chord within the Black communities across Canada. Viola’s case brought attention to the segregation within Canada which helped inspire change and a wider set of efforts towards equality across the country.
In 2010, Viola was finally granted the posthumous pardon and the Government of Nova Scotia apologized for the tax persecution, recognizing it was indeed a fine based on racial discrimination.
Viola will be the first Canadian-born woman to appear alone on a bill. The only other Canadian-born female featured on a bill, Agnes Macphail, appeared alongside three men on the 2017 bill marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
Viola’s bill will also feature the historic north end of Halifax, including a sketch of Gottingen Street, which is home to one of Canada’s oldest Black communities and, of course, Viola’s first Beauty Salon. This $10 bill is the first vertically oriented blacknote in Canada in hopes to provide a prominent image of Viola Desmond and encourage recognition of the struggles African-Canadians have faced while prompting individuals to learn more of Viola’s strong will, courage, and hard work.