Friday, 21 March 2014


                                             BLACK                  SOCIAL                HISTORY                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Viola Davis Desmond (July 6, 1914 – February 7, 1965) was a Black Nova Scotian who was granted a posthumous pardon,[1] the first to be granted in Canada.[2] The government of Nova Scotia also apologized for convicting her for tax evasion, when, in fact, she was resisting a "whites only" discrimination policy in a movie theatre in 1946.[3] Desmond's story was one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Canadian history. Desmond acted nine years before the famed incident by civil-rights activist Rosa Parks, with whom Desmond is often compared.[1]
Early life
Viola Desmond (maiden name Davis) was born on July 6, 1914, one of fifteen children born to James and Gwendolyn Davis. Viola grew up with parents who were active in the Black community in Halifax, and were members of social circles such as the Criterion Club.
Being of African descent, Viola Desmond was not allowed to train to become a beautician in Halifax, so she left and received beautician training in Montreal, Atlantic City, and one of Madame C.J. Walker's beauty schools in New York. Upon finishing her training, Viola Desmond returned to Halifax to start her own hair salon. Her clients included Portia White and a young Gwen Jenkins, later the first black nurse in Nova Scotia.[4] In addition, Viola Desmond set up a beauty school in Halifax, The Desmond School of Beauty Culture,[5] so that Black women would not have to travel as far as she did to receive proper training. She also started her own line of beauty products, Vi's Beauty Products[4] which she marketed and sold herself.[6]

The Incident

Viola Desmond joined her husband Jack Desmond in a combined barbershop and hairdressing salon, a beauty parlour on Gottingen Street. While on a business trip to sell her beauty products, Viola went to New Glasgow in 1946. While driving through New Glasgow, Viola Desmond's car broke down and she was told that she would have to wait a day before the parts to fix it became available.
On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond decided to take in a movie. When buying the ticket she asked for a seat on the main floor. Believing she had gotten the ticket she had asked for, Viola Desmond took her seat on the main floor, where she was told by the manager that she did not have the ticket for that seat. Viola Desmond returned to the ticket booth where she was informed that it was against their policy to give a main seat ticket to a Black person. Viola returned to the main floor and refused to sit in the balcony designated exclusively for blacks in the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. Desmond was forcibly removed from the theatre, was cause injury in the process, and arrested. Viola Desmond was kept in jail overnight, and was never informed about her right to legal advice, a lawyer, or bail.[6]

The Trials

Desmond was eventually found guilty of not paying the one-cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket. She was fined$20 (252.99 in 2013[7]) and court costs ($6). She paid the fine and returned to Halifax. Upon returning she discussed the matter with her husband, and his advice was to let it go. However when she sought advice from the leaders of the Baptist church she attended, Pearline and Will Oliver, they encouraged her to do something about it. With their support Desmond decided to fight the charge in court.
Following the decision to fight the charge, the Clarion, a newspaper devoted to exposing injustice and racism, ran a front page story on Viola Desmond to create support and publicity for Desmond.
With the help of her church and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) Viola Desmond hired a lawyer, Frederick Bissett. He represented her in the criminal trials as well as attempting to file a law suit against the Roseland Theatre that failed to make it to trial.
During subsequent trials the government insisted on arguing that this was a case of tax evasion. Retail sales tax was calculated based on the price of the theatre ticket. Since the theatre would only agree to sell the Black woman a cheaper balcony ticket, but she had insisted upon sitting in the more expensive main floor seat, she was one cent short on tax. For her crime of so-called tax evasion, she was removed from the theatre, thrown in jail overnight, tried without counsel, convicted and fined. During the trial, no one admitted that Viola Desmond was Black, and that the theatre maintained a racist seating policy. The trial proceeded as if it related to race-neutral tax evasion. Bissett tried to appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, however they sided with the Roseland Theatre and the conviction stood.
Her lawyer returned her fee which she used to set up a fund that was eventually used to support activities of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), which supported her through her trials.


After the trial, Desmond closed her business and then moved to Montreal where she could enroll in a business college. She eventually settled in New York where she died on February 7, 1965 at the age of 50.[8]
While the case received little attention outside of Nova Scotia, it has since gained notoriety as one of many cases fought for civil rights in the mid-20th century. Desmond's court struggle began the nullification of Nova Scotia's laws for segregation.[9]
In 2000, Desmond and other Canadian civil rights activists were the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary Journey to Justice.[10] In 2012, she was displayed on a commemorative stamp issued by Canada Post.[9]
On April 14, 2010, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova ScotiaMayann Francis, on the advice of her premier, invoked the Royal Prerogative and granted Desmond a posthumous free pardon,[1] the first such to be granted in Canada.[2] The free pardon differed from a simple pardon, because while pardons are given to free convicts from guilt, a 'free pardon' admits that the government made a mistake and the law was wrong. The government of Nova Scotia also apologised.[3] This was largely because of actions taken by Desmond's younger sister, Wanda Robson and a professor of Cape Breton University, Dr. Graham Reynolds to make sure that Desmond's name was cleared and that the government admitted its wrong.
Nova Scotia’s February holiday will honour Desmond in 2015, the provincial government declared.[9]


Since her passing, Viola Desmond has been paid tribute to as an important figure in the Canadian civil rights movement. There has been a documentary made about her, entitled Long Road to Justice: The Viola Desmond Story,[6] a children's book Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner,[11] and a song named for her by Faith Nolan.[12]
Cape Breton University has established a scholarship campaign in the names of Viola Desmond and Wanda Robson and named a Chair in Social Justice after Viola Desmond.[13]
Viola Desmond's portrait hangs in Government House in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Desmond's hometown, and Desmond's sister, Wanda Robson, has written a book about activism in her family and her experiences with her sister, Viola Desmond. The book is titled Sister to Courage[14]
Viola Desmond's story is often used during Black History Month and is included in the curriculum across Canada and used as a case study and example to teach children about racism, civil rights, and prejudice in Canada.[15]