Viola Desmond: The Original Rosa Parks
Canada is a dynamic country, fusing 150 years of diverse culture and heritage, creating a rich and diverse background, embodying the essence of its national anthem: “glorious and free.” Every Canadian throughout history has been a force that has shaped and contributed to the Canada we live in today; each one having their own story to tell and role to play. In order to understand what makes Canada so unique in its diversity and equality, we need to explore its roots. Black Canadians are one of the many pivotal forces that have contributed to the nation’s identity. The ambitious civil rights activist, Viola Desmond, is one of the many black Canadians who helped shape and define the Canada we know today.
Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Desmond was inspired by her parents’ hard work and active community involvement. She became a successful business women in beauty culture; opening her own beauty salon and subsequently a beauty school1. Desmond’s sister describes her as “Passionate about people [,] [s]he inspired them and she inspires us”2. Desmond is not only an inspiration to her family, but to all women and Canadians. Through her beauty school, she appealed to the minority black culture, helping shape Canada’s cultural mosaic society we see today. Desmond’s leadership and inspirational qualities helped create a strong and powerful nation.
Nine years before the renowned Rosa Parks, Desmond took a seat in the whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in Halifax3. On 8th November 1946, upon the purchase of her ticket, she proceeded to seat herself on the main floor- the black population was mandated to sit on the balconies4. Consequent to the ushers request to move, Desmond returned to the cashier with the impression she was handed the wrong ticket. The cashier refused to exchange her ticket stating, “I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people”5. Desmond, baffled, was more than willing to pay the difference; however, the manager was required to forcefully escort her out6. She was charged with “attempting to defraud the provincial government,” because she allegedly “refused to pay a one cent amusement tax”- the tax difference between the two tickets7. Desmond valiantly appealed the charges, lost, and later realized, Canada was not prepared to face its problem with racism and segregation. Her act of courage and defiance left its mark on Canada, as in the later years, she was rewarded for her bravery.
After she lost her appeal, she could have given up and accepted that Canada was not ready to change; but she did not. Through her story and active participation in the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the segregation laws in the province were abolished eight years later8. On 15 April 2010, the Nova Scotia government, publically and formally, recognized their misinterpretation of the justice system and that the charges should never have been laid; they “posthumously awarded Desmond an apology and pardon”9. During the formal ceremony, the Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs and Economic and Rural Development Percy Paris stated, “With this pardon, we are acknowledging the wrongdoing of the past, [...] we are reinforcing our stance that discrimination and hate will not be tolerated”10. Canada has since lived up to this statement as shown in Section 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability”11. With this law imposed, no citizen will have to face the undue hardship Desmond experienced. Desmond’s actions has affected this law, as today, racial discrimination is not tolerated in any Canadian court.
1 Bingham, R. “Viola Desmond.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 26 Oct, 2017, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/viola-desmond//viola-desmond/.
2 News, CBC. “How civil rights icon Viola Desmond helped change course of Canadian history.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 8 Dec, 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/viola-desmond-bio-1.3886923.
4 McRae, M. “The Story of Viola Desmond.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights 4 Feb, 2017, https://humanrights.ca/blog/black-history-month-story-viola-desmond.
5 Bingham, R. “Viola Desmond.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 26 Oct, 2017, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/viola-desmond//viola-desmond/.
8 News, CBC. “How civil rights icon Viola Desmond helped change course of Canadian history.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 8 Dec, 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/viola-desmond-bio-1.3886923.
9 Bingham, R. “Viola Desmond.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 26 Oct, 2017, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/viola-desmond//viola-desmond/.
11 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 15(1), Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 2982, c 11.