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Viola Desmond: Movie Night Becomes a Fight for Civil Rights

For the week of Monday, February 13, 2017

On February 16, 2015, Nova Scotia honoured Viola Davis Desmond to mark the province’s very first Heritage Day. Known for her opposition to racial segregation, Viola Desmond is an important figure from Nova Scotia’s Black community.

A Viola Desmond stamp, issued in 2012, highlighted her role in the fight against racial segregation
© Canada Post / 2012 / Reproduced with permission

Born on July 6, 1914, Viola Desmond was an African-Canadian businesswoman from the Halifax region in Nova Scotia. She was the owner of Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture and the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, two businesses that gave women of colour the rare opportunity to obtain professional beauty care and take vocational training in that field.

Viola Desmond was on a business trip in 1946 when her car broke down near New Glasgow. She decided to go to the movies while her car was at the garage, and it was there that she encountered segregation. In that cinema, Black people were required to buy balcony tickets. Desmond preferred to sit on the main level. So she left some extra money at the box office (seats on the main level were more expensive) and took a seat on the main level. The police were called, Viola Desmond was arrested and she spent a night in jail. In the end, she was charged with tax fraud because she only paid three cents in taxes on her ticket when she should have paid four. She was also ordered to pay a $20 fine and $6 in court costs.

The press followed the story closely. The incident raised awareness among Halifax’s Black communities, and opposition to racial segregation grew. Nearly 10 years before Rosa Parks took her own stand against racial inequalities in the United States, Viola Davis Desmond fought against the inequalities that, at that time, affected the entire Black population of Canada.

Halifax’s Africville neighbourhood is a national historic site. As of 2018, Viola Desmond will be featured on the new regular circulation $10 bank note.

February is Black History Month in Canada. To learn more about racial segregation in Canada, read Always Fighting for Equality, Black Pioneers Head to the Prairies, Breaking Down Racial Barriers Through Music, and Leading the Way for Minority Rights and Women in Canada in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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