Why Canada’s Rosa Parks Will Be on the Next $10 Bill
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this Black woman is bumping a white leader from the ten-spot.
To help pass time after her car broke down and needed repairs during a trip between two cities, Viola Desmond visited Roseland Theatre and requested a ticket to the main floor. But when the well-dressed businesswoman, who owned a beauty culture salon and school, went to take a seat, she was told by an employee that she would have to move upstairs to the balcony.
This must have been a mistake, the 32-year-old surmised, especially since she was nearsighted and needed to sit close to the screen. Desmond offered to pay the difference in price to stay on the main floor. “I’m sorry,” the cashier replied, “but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs to you people.”
Desmond took a downstairs seat anyway. And she didn’t budge, even after the manager told her his theater had the right to “refuse admission to any objectionable person.” Desmond kindly told him she hadn’t been refused and that she had a ticket to prove it. The Black patron stayed put, and the white manager called the police.
In the land of the true north, strong and free back then, many businesses across Canada practiced racial segregation in public places.
Far from the Deep South, this incident occurred in the town of New Glasgow, in Nova Scotia, Canada, on November 8, 1946 — nine years before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. Unlike some civil-rights campaigns in the U.S., where activists decided to take a stand against racial segregation by sitting in white-only areas and risking arrest, imprisonment and prosecution, “Viola made hers on the spur of the moment,” says Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. “She just felt times had changed. She wasn’t going to knuckle under that racist theater policy.”
Elegantly covered in white gloves, Desmond’s knuckles didn’t fight back when the former teacher was dragged out of the theater, where she lost a shoe and handbag and suffered bruises in the process. She was arrested, locked in a jail cell overnight and charged with tax evasion over the difference in cost — one cent — between the tax on a balcony and main floor seat. “This outlandish charge was required, as there were no laws on the books in Nova Scotia to enforce racial segregation in theaters,” according to the Nova Scotia Museum.
Indeed, in the land of the true north, strong and free back then, many businesses across Canada practiced racial segregation in public places, including restaurants, hotels, swimming pools and theaters. “It was the same pattern that led to the creation of Jim Crow laws in the States,” says Graham Reynolds, the Viola Desmond chair of social justice at Cape Breton University. “The only difference in Canada was those practices were never enforced in law.” Even so, Desmond was convicted and fined $20 plus a $6 cost awarded to the theater’s manager.
Civil-rights advocates, including from the then–recently formed Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, helped raise national attention about the case and supported a legal challenge by Desmond. “Most of the community rallied around her and said, ‘This has gone on long enough,’ ” says Wanda Robson, one of Desmond’s 10 siblings, now 90 years old. “Some said she was a troublemaker. That was drowned out by the fact that the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People really backed her up.” Yet they failed to have Desmond’s conviction overturned by the provincial Supreme Court in what became the first known challenge brought by a Black woman in Canada against a racial segregation law, according to a Dalhousie Law Journal article by Backhouse.
Still, the efforts galvanized more people to fight for change and, in 1959, Nova Scotia passed the Fair Accommodations Act, outlawing racial discrimination. “This legislation, I think, is the real legacy of Viola Desmond,” says Reynolds, author of Viola Desmond’s Canada. “Following this, other provinces passed similar legislation.”
Desmond, who eventually moved to Montreal and died in New York City in 1965, never should have been charged in the first place. “We recognize today that the act for which Viola Desmond was arrested was an act of courage — not an offense,” said Darrell Dexter, the premier of Nova Scotia, in 2010, when Desmond was granted a free pardon and issued an official apology.
In the past year, Desmond has been chosen to have her name on a new street in Montreal and a ferry in Halifax, where she was born. And next year she’ll replace the first prime minister of Canada on the country’s $10 bill. Remarkable, really, considering how Robson remembers her sister. “I never, ever heard her raise her voice — except for while singing a song,” she says.