Viola Desmond, born and raised in Halifax, was a successful business woman and entrepreneur in the beauty salon industry. The former school teacher had always wanted to open her own hairdressing business, however many beauty schools denied admission to Black women. She then travelled from city to city for courses until she finally obtained her diploma in hairdressing in Atlantic City.
In 1937, Desmond began Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture, where she provided hair and cosmetic services to racially-mixed clientele in Halifax. After much success in a few years, she proceeded to set up the Desmond School of Beauty Culture which trained Black female beauticians from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Québec who were denied admission from whites-only beauty schools, as Desmond was. The thriving business woman gained popularity and eventually was also able to market her own product line called Vi’s Beauty Products.
Through such ventures, Desmond became a successful entrepreneur, and was recognized as a role model and inspiration to many in her community, to her students, and to her clients.
However, things took a surprising turn on November 8, 1946. Desmond was travelling for business when her car broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She decided to wait on her repairs by going to see a movie at Roseland Theatre where she asked to purchase a main floor ticket, but the white cashier responded, “I’m sorry but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.”
Desmond was sold a balcony ticket and realized that this injustice was due to her race. Courageously, she took a seat on the main floor to enjoy the movie. When the manager confronted her, she did not move, so the manager called the police. Desmond was then forcibly escorted out of the theatre, was arrested, and was charged on the grounds of tax evasion. The charge of tax evasion derived from her failure to pay the extra penny in theatre tax for main floor seats.
Considering that this was not Desmond’s motive whatsoever, she tried to revoke her criminal conviction, but unfortunately, was unsuccessful in doing so. Be that as it may, Viola Desmond was successful in causing and inspiring change for racial equality in Novia Scotia, as well as throughout the country, considering that her fight against her conviction revealed the true issue of racism concealed by “tax evasion.”
As an icon for the human rights and freedom movement in Canada, Viola Desmond paved the way for much change in the country concerning racial equality and the importance of rights for all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, or any other status.
In 2010, it was recognized by the Novia Scotia government that Desmond was done a great injustice, therefore she received a posthumous pardon and a public apology by the Lieutenant Governor and the Premier, respectively.
Nearly 70 years after this act of racism, she now appears on the $10 bill released in 2018. One side features Desmond, while the reverse side features symbols and images to represent social justice and the fight for rights and freedom. Viola Desmond’s single act of courage and struggle for social justice still resonates with Canadians, hence why it is so important to recognize her and what she stood for.
Written by: Maria Dryden