Seventy-five years ago today, Viola Desmond took a stand against racism that directly challenged segregation in Canada, and left a legacy of extraordinary courage, perseverance, resilience and dignity that has inspired generations of Black Canadians and others to stand up against racism and discrimination.
On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond went to a movie in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Being nearsighted, she chose a main floor seat close to the screen, unaware that the theatre was segregated and Black patrons were expected to sit in the balcony. While there were no official laws enforcing the separation of Black and White Canadians, many communities and businesses made their own unofficial rules. When Desmond was asked to move, and realized what was happening, she asked to exchange the balcony ticket she had unknowingly bought, for a main floor ticket at an additional cost. She was refused, forcefully removed from the theatre, arrested and jailed overnight.
Desmond was convicted, without legal representation, of tax evasion for failing to pay the full tax on a main-floor movie ticket – a difference of one cent. But she refused to accept the charges against her, and her case went to Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court, where her appeal lost on a technicality.
Viola Desmond’s stand against racism rallied Nova Scotia’s Black community and generated such attention that the provincial government had little choice but to dismantle its segregation laws and in 1954, finally completely repeal them. In 2010 the Nova Scotia government granted Viola Desmond a posthumous pardon and also apologized. In 2018, she was named a National Historic Person, and became the first Canadian woman to appear alone on a Canadian bank note – a $10 bill.
Human rights advances begin with individual acts to call out racism or discrimination. Viola Desmond had the courage and the leadership to call it out in that moment, and her courage helped inspire Canada’s civil rights movement. The OHRC is proud to follow Viola Desmond’s lead, and her vision of a Canada where everyone deserves to be treated fairly and equally, regardless of the colour of their skin.
Let’s commemorate the 75th anniversary of Viola Desmond’s valiant stand, by taking our own stand every day to call out racism and discrimination when we see it.
(Historical information source: Canadian Museum for Human Rights)