Viola Desmond: The Perfect Choice

Viola Desmond is the first Canadian woman to be featured on our bank notes.

We know the outline of her story—Ms Desmond was arrested, jailed and convicted for refusing to leave the whites-only section of a movie theatre.  Her story speaks to the pernicious nature of racism in Canada and how it impacts those who suffer from discrimination.

A movie ticket isn’t just a movie ticket

Ms Desmond and her husband Jack owned a barber shop/beauty salon in Halifax.  Ms Desmond was on a business trip when her car broke down in New Glasgow.  When she found out it wouldn’t be ready until the next day she booked a hotel room and went to the movies.


Viola Desmond

She wanted a seat on the main floor but the cashier refused to sell her one saying “I’m sorry but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.”

It was then that Ms Desmond realized she was being denied seating because she was black.  Ms Desmond told the cashier she didn’t see any signs saying “whites only” anywhere and when the cashier still refused to sell her a main floor ticket, Ms Desmond left extra money for a downstairs ticket with the cashier and took a seat on the main floor close to the screen.

The usher and the theatre manager asked Ms Desmond to leave.  She refused.  The manager called the police who asked Ms Desmond to leave.  She refused.

The manager and the policeman dragged the tiny woman out of the cinema.  She spent the night in jail.

A law isn’t just a law  

Nova Scotia did not have formal racial segregation laws, but like many places it had an unwritten code governing where Blacks could sit in movie theatres and other public places.

Given that it’s impossible to charge someone for breaking an unwritten “code” the powers-that-be got creative—they charged Ms Desmond with tax evasion.

The charge was based on the fact that a 2 cent amusement tax was included in the price of a 30 cent balcony ticket and a 3 cent amusement tax was included in the price of the 40 cent main floor ticket.  Ms Desmond was sitting in a main floor seat with a balcony ticket, therefore she owed the government of Nova Scotia a penny.

Ms Desmond told the police magistrate that she’d offered to buy a 40 cent main floor ticket but the cashier refused to sell her one.  He ignored her explanation and convicted her of tax evasion.  She was fined $20 plus costs.

A loss isn’t always a loss  

Ms Desmond was understandably horrified by her ordeal.  Upon her return to Halifax she decided to appeal her conviction.

She received support from the leaders of the Black community and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but not everyone was enthusiastic about her decision.

Some people worried that the appeal would trigger a racist backlash, while others thought their time would be better spent arguing against discrimination in access to housing and employment instead of seating at a cinema.  A small group wondered whether Ms Desmond brought this misfortune on herself by trying to “pass” as white.


Viola Desmond

Eventually those who supported the appeal won the day and the case for judicial review was brought before the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.  It was dismissed on a technicality because it was filed outside the 10 day limitation period.

Notwithstanding the loss, the Desmond case served to mobilize public opinion in the fight against discrimination.

Why Viola Desmond? Why now?

Rebel Media dismisses the Bank of Canada’s selection of Ms Desmond as an act of tokenism.  They say Ms Desmond is “barely a footnote in history” and landed on the $10 bill simply because she’s Black and won the “Oppression Olympics”.

Rebel says its real concern is that in order to put Ms Desmond on the $10 bill and another undeserving lout on the $5 bill John A Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier will move to other bills bumping off Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Rebel argues that “erasing” Borden (a racist) and King (a spiritualist who held séances to converse with his dead mother) is sacrilegious given their contribution to Canadian history.

Historians disagree.

King’s biographer, Allan Levine, says the change reflects “our attitudes today, the world wasn’t only run by white men or politicians. There are other people who are also significant to Canadian history, and Viola Desmond is a good choice.”

In 1946 Viola Desmond was a young black woman stranded miles from home.  She showed tremendous courage by refusing to be cowed into giving up her seat in the “whites-only” section of a cinema.  She showed even more courage by appealing her unjust conviction for tax evasion.

In 1982 Pierre Elliot Trudeau enshrined the right to be free from discrimination in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In 2016 Justin Trudeau’s Finance Minister selected Ms Desmond, a soft spoken beauty salon owner and civil rights activist to grace our $10 bill.

It’s taken 70 years for Canada to recognize Viola Desmond.

Her time has come and come and anyone who argues a racist and a spiritualist are more deserving isn’t going to take it away from her.

Sources: starting at p 17

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16 Responses to Viola Desmond: The Perfect Choice

  1. Einar Davison says:

    Well that is so typical, God forbid that something should change in their perfect world. I’m very glad that this finally occurred and I feel at least 50% of the bills should be females of reknown, or put both males and females on the bills. Why not? Viola Desmond is a very good choice too. I guess if the Cons win the next election (God forbid) they will remove her from the bill again…what a shame that will be.

    • Einar you hit the nail on the head when you said “God forbid that something should change in their perfect world.”

      I relied heavily on Constance Backhouse’s paper (the first item in the sources) for this post. Backhouse is a law prof at the University of Ottawa. She says Canadians are oblivious to “the level of white privilege” within our political, economic, social and legal institutions. We fail to recognize that our accomplishments are not necessarily “the result of white merit” but rather “a direct result of individual and systemic race discrimination.”

      That point rang home when I watched the Rebel “reporter”, a white college educated woman, rail on about Desmond’s selection as “tokenism” and winning the “Oppression Olympics”…and then compounding the insult by suggesting Desmond was not as worthy as two white prime ministers.

      There’s a reason why Desmond became a hairdresser and Borden and King became prime ministers and it has nothing to do with “worthiness”.

  2. Brent McFadyen says:

    Thank you Susan for bringing this story to me and other Canadians. Viola Desmond deserves to be recognized for her courage to stand up to the establishment and bigotry. This is a good example why more women are needed to serve in politics.

    • Brent: Viola Desmond was quite an entrepreneur. She owned a beauty salon which provided hair and cosmetic services to “racially-mixed” ladies in Halifax and a beauty school which trained Black beauticians from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec, which barred Black women from being trained in whites-only beauty schools.

      Apparently Viola was quiet and calm by nature, however according to Reverend William Pearly Oliver, her “aggressive effort to obtain rights” had “enhanced the prestige of the Negro community throughout the province” and spawned “much of the positive action.”

      So much for Rebel’s comment that she was barely a footnote in history.

  3. Douglas Taylor says:

    Repeatedly Rebel Media demonstrates its creepy pious red neckishness. There outta be an app to block such dipsticks from claiming to be something more than hate mongers.

    • Douglas: I love your comment. I can’t figure out why Rebel Media is so angry about anything it doesn’t agree with. First they’re cranked up about the carbon tax, then they’re cranked up at Brian Jean, Jason Kenney and Rona Ambrose for criticizing the “lock her up” chanters, and now they’re cranked up because Viola Desmond will appear on the $10 bill.
      Is there anything out there that doesn’t elevate their blood pressure?

  4. What a horrible thing to have happen! I imagine she ran through all her emotions during that experience – shock, fear, anger. When are people going to learn that race or religion is just like the clothes you wear – it is important to you and everyone appears different, but underneath we are all the same. And I completely do not understand “passing yourself off as a white”. What? Like me “passing myself off as a black”. I don’t understand what the difference would be. Again we are all the same underneath. And that person you spoke of (I can’t see his name now in my reader) … What makes him think that old dead politicians/prime ministers contribute more to the world than anyone else, like your neighbourhood hairdresser! Congratulations to her, and to her sister too, as I hear she also campaigned for Viola.

  5. Linda, you’re right about Viola’s sister Wanda working hard to make sure people understood what Viola had accomplished. Wanda told the CBC that she was just a teenager when Viola was arrested and jailed. Wanda’s first thought was that Viola must have done something wrong. Her second thought was oh no, how can I face people again. Wanda said it was a selfish reaction, all about me, me, me. And then it finally sank in that Viola had been arrested simply for sitting in a certain part of the theatre.
    It’s hard to imagine what that must be like for those of us who’ve never experienced racial discrimination. That’s one reason why all Canadians need to learn more about our own history of racism with aboriginals and blacks. As law prof Constance Backhouse said, there’s no point in talking about strategies to deal with racism if you don’t recognize that it’s existed in Canada for hundreds of years.

  6. ronmac says:

    Being an east coast native I saw and experienced fitst hand race riots in the early 1970’s as a teenager. It made th news as far away as Chicago. at the time. Let me tell you it was an ugly thing to see, all that hate and rage on display and out of control.

    Anyways, I’m glad Viola made it on the $10 bill.

    • Ronmac: you make a very important point…it’s one thing for us to imagine what this must be like but it’s quite another thing to witness it. I was listening to a CBC program about the comedian Trevor Noah. He lived in South Africa under apartheid. His mother was black, his father was white. He said he was the product of his parents’ crime and he lived with the constant fear that the police would catch him playing with his black cousins and take him to an orphanage to be adopted by parents whose skin colour more closely matched his own. Unbelievable.

  7. Elaine Fleming says:

    Thanks for filling us in on Viola’s story, Susan. You told it very well. Although not being of any colour- except a pasty kind of beige- I really identified with her and the injustices she tried to address. It’s too bad she got this recognition posthumously. However, it is still very important for her sister, and a jolting reminder to us about our history of racism. I’m sure with all the persecution she was subjected to by the government, she would never have guessed at her legacy. Whatever the complaints about it, it is an important symbolic gesture.

  8. jerrymacgp says:

    This story is a reminder that, although Canada has not had the kind of formal, institutionalized racial segregation that we normally associate with the US Deep South & Jim Crow (and yet, isn’t truly confined to the South there either), lower-profile forms of racism and segregation were and still are a reality in many parts of Canada.

    However, can I also offer a couple of quibbles re spelling? Sir John A.’s surname is spelled ‘Macdonald’, with a small ‘d’, and similarly King’s second middle name as ‘Mackenzie’. Those of us with Scottish heritage pay close attention to those sorts of things …

    • Jerrymacgp: You’re right that racism in Canada wasn’t as formalized as it was in the US; I suspect that’s one reason why we’re blissfully unaware of just how deep racism ran in our country. The Backouse paper describes 6 lawsuits which are truly eye opening.
      PS: thank you for quibbling with the spelling of those wonderful Scottish names Mr macgp. I’ll fix that right now. *blush*.

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