Viola Desmond: Mutiny in the Theatre
A seemingly small resistance has the potential for tremendous transformation. Is that not the lesson that history has entrenched in society? Yet as humans, we tend to disavow defiance, obeying the status quo. After all, no one performs the regular tasks of life anticipating historical ramifications. However, one common thought has proliferated in every revolution: that all beings are born equal. To promote this intrinsic belief, provocative actions have been propagated by black Canadians throughout Canada’s diverse history, demanding the right to be treated fairly: to be acknowledged as human.
Revolutions themselves need not to be grand affairs; in fact, they can begin with the simple act of refusing to give up your seat. Viola Desmond exemplifies this spirit of endurance. As a half-white, half-black woman, Desmond experienced racial segregation firsthand throughout her life in Halifax during the early 20th century (Black History Canada, n.d). Desmond’s fight for fairness began after she was prohibited from purchasing a theatre ticket to a seat on the main floor, as the area was reserved for white clientele only (Bank-of-Canada, 2016). Undeterred by the threat of police authority, Desmond courageously sat in the main floor, refusing to move as the view of the stage was clearer than from the balcony where blacks were allotted seats (Black History Canada, n.d). In response to her protest, Desmond was jailed for the night; badly bruised and denied legal rights, the ordeal culminated in a $20 fine and a charge of tax fraud, despite having done nothing wrong (Black History Canada, n.d). Although Desmond paid the fine, this ostensibly inconsequential incident soon sparked the flames of revolt.
In past eras, black people vacating a whites-only area was deemed customary; adopted as an expectation of life, most approached segregation with a laissez-faire attitude. Ultimately, too few believed that one individual’s rebellion could change society, nevertheless institutionalized laws in North America. However, Viola Desmond’s decision to appeal the charges laid against her galvanized the start of the civil rights movement in Canada. Despite losing the case, the nation-wide efforts of her rallying supporters forced the controversial conflict into the public spotlight. Desmond’s battle united the black collective not only in Halifax, but also in cities across the country. By undertaking progressive action to protest the discriminating treatment towards people of colour, the rise of the civil rights movement led to a stronger push for equality in both society and legislation. Eventually, bittersweet success engulfed black communities as Nova Scotia abolished its segregation laws in 1954 (CBC News, 2016).
Today’s citizens may take Viola Desmond’s story as just another classic example of racism in the 20th century; however, as modest as her confrontation was, I believe her act of refusal was a catalyst for change in society’s attitude towards people of colour. Although a war is not won overnight, a battle that lasts a day can determine the future. By standing her ground, Viola Desmond paved the path of equality for upcoming generations.
Almost 64 years after that fateful incident in the theatre, Desmond became the first in Canada to be posthumously pardoned by the government (CBC News, 2010). Nova Scotia’s public apology signaled a new direction for black Canadians, reaffirming on a national level the fundamental element of equality for all no matter one’s skin colour. Several changes driven by Desmond’s humble act of rebellion live on to this day: for example, her name lends itself to a Nova Scotia holiday, a national stamp, and an outdoor theatre in the very city which harboured the uprising (CBC News, 2016).
A promising symbol of hope for black Canadians lies in the Bank of Canada’s latest plans to overhaul Canadian currency. In 2018, when one reaches for a $10 bill, one just might see Desmond’s image, accompanied by symbols of social justice and “the struggle for rights and freedoms” (Bank of Canada, 2016). To commemorate her fight for equality, Viola Desmond will be the first sole Canadian woman to be featured on Canadian currency (Bank of Canada, 2016). Desmond spent the remainder of her life fighting to clear her name until her death in 1965, yet her vestige still lingers in Canada’s diverse identity through her paramount contributions to race relations. In the words of Rosa Parks, “You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.” With the legacies of black Canadians bolstering our steps, today’s citizens are able to walk forward, unafraid, on the path towards unity.
“A Bank NOTE-Able Canadian Woman.” Bank of Canada, 2016, www.bankofcanada.ca/banknotes/banknoteable/.
“How civil rights icon Viola Desmond helped change course of Canadian history.” CBC News, 8 Dec. 2016, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/viola-desmond-bio-1.3886923.
“Rights icon Desmond gets N.S. apology.” CBC News, 15 Apr. 2010, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/rights-icon-desmond-gets-n-s-apology-1.892821.
“Viola Desmond.” Black History Canada, Historica Canada, www.blackhistorycanada.ca/profiles.php?themeid=20&id=13.