March 8, 2018: Excerpt from 10 Days That Shaped Modern Canada

“Viola Desmond was the catalyst for jumpstarting the modern civil rights movement in Canada.”
Aaron W. Hughes, author

“Eighteen years before the razing of Africville, and nine years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, one of Canada’s most notorious and publicized incidents of racial discrimination unfolded in a New Glasgow movie theatre. Viola Desmond, a resident of Halifax, was an unlikely candidate to be the catalyst for jumpstarting the modern civil rights movement in Canada. The daughter of a Black mother and a white father, she grew up aware of the absence of hair and skin-care products for Black women. In order to rectify the situation, she sought, at a young age, to become a beautician. Since she was not allowed to train in Halifax because of the colour of her skin, she went to study in Montreal, Atlantic City, and New York to receive the proper training. Upon completion of her training, she returned to Halifax to start her own hair salon. 

Desmond was an astute business woman. She opened the Desmond School of Beauty Culture so that Black women would not have to travel as far as she had to receive proper instruction. Her goal was to train other women who had been denied admission to white beauty schools. She then encouraged her former pupils to open their own businesses, which would, in turn, provide jobs for other Black women within their communities. In addition to all this, Desmond also started her own line of hair and skin-care products, called Vi’s Beauty Products, which she marketed and sold herself.

On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond set out from Halifax by car to travel to Sydney in Cape Breton to sell her beauty products. Her car broke down in New Glasgow, and when she was told that she would have to wait a day before the parts to fix it became available, she decided to pass the time by going to see a movie at a local cinema. Though there were no formal laws enforcing segregation in movie theatres in New Glasgow, it was unofficial policy that main floor seats were reserved solely for the use of white patrons, so Desmond was sold a ticket in the balcony. Since there was no sign informing patrons of the “rule,” Desmond, unaware of the theatre’s policy, decided to find a seat on the main floor so she could be closer to the screen because of her nearsightedness. When she was asked to move, she refused owing to the better view the floor seat afforded her. She was then forcibly removed from the theatre and arrested. She spent the night in jail, was not informed of her right to legal advice, a lawyer, or legal counsel, and the next day was convicted of tax evasion. The tax on the balcony ticket was two cents, whereas the tax on the floor ticket was three cents, so she was convicted of having deprived the Government of Nova Scotia one cent in tax. Desmond was fined twenty dollars.…

It was only on April 14, 2010—sixty-four years after her conviction and fifty-five years after her death—that Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon, the first ever to be granted in Canada. The Government of Nova Scotia also apologized the following day for prosecuting her for tax evasion and acknowledged she was rightfully resisting racial discrimination when the arrest had occurred….

The roots of anti-Black racism and systemic discrimination in Canada run deep. They are, as Desmond’s life reveals, historically embedded in Canadian society, culture, laws, and—perhaps most dangerously—in our attitudes. They are built into our institutions and perpetuate the social and economic disparities that exist in everything from education and healthcare to housing and employment. All of these can change only with a change in attitude and acknowledgement of historical wrongs. This is what the appearance of Viola Desmond on the ten-dollar bill signifies.”

When federal finance minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz unveiled the new ten-dollar bill in a historic ceremony in Halifax on March 8, 2018—International Women’s Day—Viola Desmond (1914–1965) became both the first woman (other than the Queen) and the first Black Canadian to appear on regular Canadian currency. The purple polymer bill—the first vertically oriented banknote issued in Canada—also included an old map of Halifax’s north end, the city’s historic Black neighbourhood, in the background behind Desmond. On the reverse side was a picture of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, an eagle feather, and a quotation from section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination.” The new ten-dollar bill was meant to showcase the important but often overlooked role of women in Canada’s past, while simultaneously acknowledging the wrongs committed against visible minorities.