Viola Desmond
Viola Desmond, early 1940s
© Wanda and Joe Robson Collection. 16-80-30220. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.

Viola Desmond was designated a national historic person in 2017.

Historical importance: African-Canadian business woman, civil rights activist.

Commemorative plaque: Former Roseland Theatre, 188 Provost Street, and Viola’s Way, New Glasgow, Nova ScotiaFootnote 1

In 1946, Halifax businesswoman Viola Desmond confronted the racism that African-Nova Scotians routinely faced when she refused to move from her seat in the “whites-only” section of the Roseland Theatre, formerly located here. For this, she was arrested, jailed overnight, and fined. Her unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia attracted broad attention. It confirmed for African-Canadians that the law did not protect them and sparked their activism. Desmond’s resistance to racial discrimination was an important milestone in Canada’s human rights history and an inspiration for the civil rights movement in this country.

Viola Desmond (1914-1965)

In mid-20th century Canada, Viola Desmond brought nationwide attention to the African-Nova Scotian community’s struggle for equal rights. An African-Canadian businesswoman, she confronted the anti-Black racism that African Nova Scotians routinely faced by refusing to move from her seat in the “whites-only” section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow on 8 November 1946. For this she was arrested, jailed overnight, and fined. Her unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia attracted broad attention. It confirmed for African Canadians that the law did not protect them and sparked their activism. Desmond’s resistance to racial discrimination was an important milestone in Canada’s human rights history and an inspiration for the civil rights movement in this country.

Illustration of Viola Desmond
Artistic rendition of Viola Desmond. Material from The Kids Book of Black Canadian History written by Rosemary Sadlier and illustrated by Wang Qijun is used by permission of Kids Can Press Ltd., Toronto. Illustrations
© 2003 Wang Qijun

Viola Desmond was born in 1914, the daughter of a middle-class family in Halifax. After graduating from high school she worked as a teacher in segregated schools for African-Canadian students, one of a very limited number of employment avenues open to her. From there, she attended the Field Beauty Culture School in Montréal, one of the few schools accepting African-Canadian students at the time. After completing her training in New York, she opened ‘Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture’ in Halifax. An entrepreneur, she sold beauty products for African-Canadian women that had previously been unavailable to Nova Scotians and provided career training. Through the success of her enterprises, she achieved financial independence, becoming a role model to African-Canadian women.

In November 1946, while travelling on business from Halifax to Sydney, Nova Scotia, car trouble forced Desmond to stop overnight in New Glasgow, where she decided to go to the Roseland Theatre to see a film. Unaware of the theatre’s segregated seating rules, she attempted to purchase a ticket in the floor section. When informed that the theatre would only sell her a balcony ticket, she took a seat on the floor anyway. For this, she was forcibly removed, arrested, held in jail overnight, and then charged, tried, and convicted with tax evasion. That charge, based on the one cent difference in tax between floor and balcony seats, was the only possible legal justification for her arrest and imprisonment.

Bronze commemorative plaque
Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada commemorative plaque for Viola Desmond National Historic Person, located in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.

The physical injury, humiliation, and injustice that Desmond suffered outraged the African-Nova Scotian community. The case became a rallying point for those seeking to end discrimination in their province, including the newly established Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), which unsuccessfully contested her conviction. Despite the outcome of her legal case, Viola Desmond’s act of resistance has come to represent a turning point in the struggle for rights in Canada. In 2010, the Government of Nova Scotia issued an apology and a posthumous pardon and in 2016 the federal government announced that Desmond would be commemorated on the newly designed $10 bill.

Backgrounder last update: 2022-08-10

 

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Get information on how to participate in this process