Viola Irene Desmond - Her Legacy Our History

Viola Irene Desmond - Her Legacy Our History [image of Viola Desmond]

Viola Irene Desmond was a Canadian from Nova Scotia of black descent, born July 6, 1914, in Halifax. She trained as a teacher but ended up working with her husband Jack Desmond in a combined barbershop and hair salon.

While in New Glasgow in 1946 her car broke down and while it was getting fixed, she decided to go to the movies at the Roseland Theatre. She went into the theatre and sat on the main floor unaware that in this town the tickets sold to African Canadians were for the balcony and the main floor was reserved for white people. The theatre staff demanded that she move to the balcony. When she refused because she could see better from the main floor, the staff called the police. When the police arrived, they dragged her from the theatre, injuring her hip. Despite having done nothing wrong, she was charged with defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia of the difference in the tax between a ground floor and a balcony seat, which amounted to one cent.

She was arrested and spent the night in jail and had to pay a $20 fine, which would be almost $162 today. While she was discussing the incident with the doctor who tended to her hip, Desmond decided to fight the charges in court because it was clearly because of her race, not because she broke the law.

In taking the matter to court, Viola’s experience helped to stir people to action, both locally and internationally, and raise reality about segregation in Canada. Viola Desmond died February 7th, 1965.

I first found out about this amazing woman because I saw her on the new ten dollar bill. Because I have been writing these articles, I immediately Googled her. After reading her story, I was shocked because I never knew that there was segregation in Canada. When I went to public school, they always taught how the slaves from America came to Canada to be free; never once did they mention how there was segregation at that time or even that there was slavery in Canada (slavery was abolished in Canada in 1834).

I always pictured Canada as the perfect place, a safe haven for the slaves who escaped from America. The quote that came into my mind as I found out about this large part of my country's history I never knew about was from George Santayana. He said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

If you want to read more about Viola here is a link:

"Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6).