By Nabeela Damji
There’s a new Queen in Canada.
Long before Rosa Parks took a stand against segregation in Alabama, Viola Desmond was the face of the civil rights movement in Canada. She was a businesswoman who refused to accept discrimination in Canada as a norm.
Today, her face is on the Canadian $10 bill, the first time a Canadian woman has been celebrated on this currency. Desmond was one of five individuals to make the shortlist for the bill, after the Trudeau government decided to choose a historical figure for the new bill. The choice was announced in 2016, and the new bill was unveiled in March 2018, which is also the first vertical banknote in Canada. Desmond was also the first woman of colour to get her own Heritage Minute in 2016, commemorating Black History Month in Canada. In 1976, February officially became Black History Month in Canada, and today we celebrate the life of a woman who, by chance, changed history forever.
Coming from a family of 15, Desmond’s parents were an integral part in the Black community in Nova Scotia. Her father was a barber, and Desmond noticed a lack of hair and skin products for Black women. Upon finishing her studies, she founded her own school, Halifax’s Desmond School of Beauty Culture, selling her own lines of products.
Desmond went to beauty school at a time where not a lot of people were accepting of Black women. She then made her school a place that also provided the skills for young women to open their own businesses, and provide jobs for other Black women in their communities. The new bill has a map that includes the area of Gottinggen Street, where her salon was located. Her start in the fight for civil rights was profound in her province, however, it was one night when her car broke down in New Glasgow that would cement her place in history.
On Nov 8th 1946, Desmond decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre while her car was being repaired at nearby shop. What Desmond did not know was that the theatre was a segregated theatre. They reserved floor seats for Whites only, while the balcony was reserved for Black patrons.
Desmond tried to purchase a floor seat, and was denied because staff told her “her kind” were not allowed. She bought a balcony seat, but sat in the floor section until staff called the police. She was dragged out, spent 12 hours in jail, and was fined $26.
Protests from the Black community in Nova Scotia were loud and clear. An appeal to the provincial Supreme Court was filed, but were all denied. Desmond passed away in 1965 without ever having those chargers dropped.
Desmond’s impact was felt not only in Nova Scotia, but throughout Canada. By 1954, eight years after Roseland, segregation was outlawed in the province, and in 2010 the province gave Desmond a free pardon - a pardon that was signed into law by a Black lieutenant-governor.
By stepping into Roseland Movie Theatre that one fateful night, Desmond’s footprint was forever cemented into history. Her life was led by the determination to see segregation and discrimination erased from the Canada that we see today. Viola Desmond is to thank for that.