I am privileged enough to say that, in my reality, a flourishing array of races, religions, cultures and generally different life perspectives have been able to co-exist. However, I recognize that my peacefully diverse reality has not always been possible throughout history. It is the hard work of egalitarian citizens that has led to my peace today. In this month, dedicated to remembering their hard work and sacrifice, I’d like to use this space blog to amplify their messages of equality. I’d like to amplify the impact that these people had and continue to have for standing up to the oppression in their realities. Today, I’d specifically like to spread the story of Viola Desmond,one of the most influential Canadian egalitarian in my eyes.
The resilience Viola Desmond demonstrated during her struggles for justice and racial equality helped trigger a civil rights movement that forever altered Canada’s heritage and identity. Her ultimate, courageous act of standing up to theatre authorities due to her belief in equality, created her identity as a civil rights founding mother and iconic emblem of resilience in Canadian history.
Viola Desmond’s early life began on July 6, 1914 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Given her hometown’s reputation of being a business centre and her father’s career as a barber, it’s no surprise that Viola wanted to establish her own beauty salon. She wished to provide black women with professional hair products because the market lacked these at the time. Though no beauty schools in Halifax admitted black people, Viola would not be deterred from her entrepreneurial dream. As a child, Viola learned, that skin color does not truly detract from a person’s value and is certainly not a factor in determining one’s character or destiny. She resiliently pursued her training in Montreal, Atlantic City and New York then went home to start her own beauty business.
Viola’s clients included the influential black-Canadian singer Portia White as well as Gwen Jenkins who later became Nova Scotia’s first black nurse. Viola’s salon became a hub that cultivated a fervent drive for change and encouraged a universal idea of equality for all. Viola also founded The Desmond School of Beauty Culture hoping to provide easier access to beautician training for black women of Halifax. Desmond’s early life already involved several inspiring victories and an impressive level of resilience.
Regardless of having become a successful business woman, the racial issue continued to rear its ugly head in Viola’s life. It was her resilient act of courage in the Roseland Theatre that ultimately seemed to jump-start a civil rights movement to alter Canada’s culture forever. On November 8, 1946, Desmond went to the movies, with intentions of sitting up close to the theatre screen. Despite being able to afford a ground floor ticket, which were the frontward seats, she was denied this and told that section was for “whites only.” Remembering her values, she held strong to her belief in equality. It is this belief that caused her to defy authorities and grab a seat in the “whites only” section anyway. She was arrested, tried and found guilty of not paying the one-cent tax difference between the “blacks” balcony ticket and ground floor ticket. Discriminatory law-enforcers got away with sentencing Viola to 30 days in jail and a $26 fine…over a one-cent tax difference. Subjected to social injustice at its finest, Desmond’s resilience was incredibly undeterred. She met with the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and had her case upheld in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.
I felt immense pride at learning of this legendary advocate’s impact on Canadians. I believe her courageous acts in the theatre and courts are pivotal points in history, forcing Canadians to address inequality. Viola’s resilience triggered a wave of defiance, that lead to social changes amongst other Canadians looking to break the system of social injustice. The wave of change was so impacting that it caused Premier Darrell Dexter to apologize to Viola’s family and all black Nova Scotians. Canada’s diverse heritage and identity now embraces multiculturalism and equality as a result of resilient black-Canadian advocates like Viola Desmond. It is for this reason that she will be the first black woman printed on the Canadian $10 bill starting in 2018.
Viola’s determination and resilience provides inspiration for overcoming our own struggles. In Desmond’s time, society did not recognize this resilience but today, Black History Month is our chance to recognize such contributions. It provides a chance to acknowledge those who have laid Canada’s foundation for equality and acceptance. We can use this month to support current black Canadians and their contributions as their names go down in our history books.