February is Black History Month in both the U.S. and Canada. While systemic racism was codified into law in the U.S., it was more of just an ‘understanding’ in Canada, but no less lethal.
She was a successful Black businesswoman. All she wanted to do was watch a movie in a theater.
Instead, she was told by the ticket seller that he could not sell a ticket “to you people.”
When she refused to move to the segregated section of the theater, she was confronted by the manager who then called the police to brutally drag her from the theater.
She was arrested. For Wanting. To Watch. A Movie. In A Theater.
When people read true stories such as this, they immediately think of “the bad, old, U.S.A.” But, this didn’t happen in the U.S.
This happened in Canada.
Viola Desmond is now a civil rights icon in Canada, someone who confronted the racism that Black Nova Scotians routinely faced and brought nationwide attention to the African Nova Scotian community’s struggle for equal rights.
But, when she died on February 7, 1965 at the age of 50, not many Canadians knew about her or her story.
“Her dignified stand against racism—a decade before Rosa Parks—is a curiously little-known part of Canadian history,” according to writer Shannon Proudfoot.
Viola Desmond is now known as Canada’s Rosa Parks, and her image now officially graces Canada’s $10 bill, something that Canada’s neighbor to the South still has not made official with its own $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, now scheduled to be released in 2030.
Before her arrest, Viola Desmond was a successful “entrepreneur, who achieved financial independence and became a role model to African-Canadian women through the success of her enterprises, which included skin and hair care products for Black women that had previously been unavailable to Nova Scotians,” according to Parcs Canada.
“To be a black entrepreneur was ground-breaking,” Henderson Paris, a New Glasgow town councillor and founder of the Run Against Racism, said in 2015.
“She was building her business and through this – this incident unfolded. Being the strong woman she was – she wasn’t standing for it. It was not right, and something needed to be done.”
“I didn’t realize a thing like this could happen in Nova Scotia – or in any other part of Canada,” said Viola Desmond after her arrest.
Desmond was no stranger to systemic racism, according to Amanda Coletta of The Washington Post. When she left her teaching job to launch a career as a beautician, Desmond was forced to travel out of the province for training because beauty schools in Nova Scotia barred black people from enrolling.
“Canada had no Jim Crow-like laws, but it did have policies that enforced segregation,” said Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively on Desmond.
“Canada, like the United States, had a history of segregation. Viola Desmond herself attended segregated schools. And in the 1910s, the Canadian government considered banning Black immigration completely. Under the Immigration Act of 1910, Canada could prohibit ‘immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.’”
The policies were “just as bad as Jim Crow,” Backhouse said, but they were written in a way that “masked” their racist intent.
“I was under the impression — when it came to education — that racism and that slavery stuff didn’t happen here in Canada,” says Tony Ince, the minister for African Nova Scotian Affairs.
According to Backhouse:
“We pride ourselves: We’re not like the bad old U.S.A. where they had segregation, whites-only fountains and washrooms and hotels. We think we were the capital of the Underground Railroad, we were the place to where the slaves escaped, we were a much better country. But in fact, some of the black people in Canada at the time said, ‘You know, it’s actually much easier in the United States because you know which hotels, restaurants, theatres won’t let you in because the signs are there. In Canada, you never know.’
“We hide our racism. We just go on about our lives—may I say, white Canadians go on about their lives. African-Canadians understand racism, Indigenous Canadians understand racism: they see it all the time, they live with it. But white people are so unappreciative, they don’t even acknowledge and understand what it means to be white in Canada, and all the layers of privilege that come with that. So they’re shocked when somebody says, ‘What just happened is racist,’ and they said, ‘Oh no, couldn’t possibly be.’ They see racism as people with KKK gowns and pointy hoods with eyes cut out. And we had those too.”
Because Desmond couldn’t be arrested because she was Black, she was instead “charged with tax evasion for failing to pay 1 cent — the price difference between the floor and balcony seats [the segregated section],” according to The Washington Post.
Let us emphasize that again:
“She was charged and convicted of tax evasion – over a single penny,” wrote The Globe and Mail.
“Her arrest and conviction on spurious charges . . . concealed racial discrimination behind the arrest,” according to Parcs Canada.
“We had no laws in Canada actually requiring segregation, like they did in the United States. But here we had people using the law—the amusements tax act—to enforce segregation, and our courts allowed them to do that,” according to Backhouse.
“Protests from Nova Scotia’s black community and an appeal to the provincial Supreme Court proved fruitless,” according to The Globe and Mail.
“Now a symbol of the struggle for equal rights, Viola Desmond’s defiance in the face of injustice became a rallying cry for Black Nova Scotians and Canadians determined to end racial discrimination,” according to Parcs Canada.
She died in 1965 without any acknowledgment of racial discrimination in her case, according to The Globe and Mail.
“It would take 63 years for Nova Scotia to issue Desmond . . . a posthumous apology and pardon,” according to Global News Canada.
Desmond’s story went largely untold for a half-century, but in recent years she has been featured on a stamp, and her name graces a Halifax harbour ferry.
“More than 53 years after her death, Desmond [also] became the first black person and the first woman other than a royal to appear on the front of a regularly circulating Canadian bank note, replacing Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, as the face of the new vertically oriented $10 bill,” according to The Washington Post.
“She was an everyday person… this tiny little woman, it’s such an example of strength and determination and education and dignity, respect that was this whole little woman,” Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson told the Cape Breton Post ahead of the first Nova Scotia Heritage Day in 2015, which honoured Desmond. Robson is the author of “Sister to Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada’s Rosa Parks.”
“She laid the foundation in regards to justice and how black people were being treated in Nova Scotia. Even though it happened in New Glasgow, similar incidents were happening all over the province,” said Crystal States, an educator with the Black Educators Association and the representative for the African Nova Scotian North Central Network told The News in 2015.
“It was a breakthrough in social justice that had predated the civil rights movement in the (United) States,” States said ahead of the first Nova Scotia Heritage Day, which honored Desmond.
“At the end of the day, we’re all just human beings,” her sister Wanda Robson said. “We’re just people. There are people with different colours, different skin shades, different hair, but at the end of the day, as I said, we are just people.”
“The Nova Scotian black community always remembered Viola Desmond—they didn’t lose track of her, ever. Her memory was very much alive there, but the rest of us didn’t know anything about her.
What’s exciting, especially in the horrible times we’re living in right now, is that this feels like a moment of inspiration. It’s actually somebody (who) fought back, and she fought back in a way that can make so many of us proud. She lost, but she left a record of what she did.”
Story courtesy of the Jon S. Randall Peace Page