How Viola Desmond Challenged Segregation in Canada

Why the entrepreneur appears on the Canadian banknote

Viola Desmond
Viola Desmond is the first woman to appear on the $10 Canadian banknote. Bank of Canada/

She’s long been compared to Rosa Parks, and now late civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond appears on Canada’s $10 banknote. Known for refusing to sit in the segregated section of a movie theater, Desmond first graced the note in 2018. She will replace Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, who will be featured on a higher-value bill instead.

Desmond was chosen to appear on the currency after the Bank of Canada requested submissions for iconic Canadian women to be featured on the bill. News that she was selected came several months after the announcement that Harriet Tubman would appear on the $20 bill in the United States.

“Today is about recognizing the incalculable contribution that all women have had and continue to have in shaping Canada’s story,” Canadian Minister of Finance Bill Morneau said of Desmond’s selection in December 2016. “Viola Desmond’s own story reminds all of us that big change can start with moments of dignity and bravery. She represents courage, strength and determination—qualities we should all aspire to every day.”

It was a long road to get Desmond on the bill. The Bank of Canada received 26,000 nominations and eventually cut that number down to just five finalists. Desmond edged out poet E. Pauline Johnson, engineer Elizabeth MacGill, runner Fanny Rosenfeld, and suffragette Idola Saint-Jean. But Americans and Canadians alike have admitted they knew little about the race relations pioneer before the landmark decision to feature her on Canadian currency.

When Desmond beat out the competition, however, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called her selection a “fantastic choice.”

He described Desmond as a “businesswoman, community leader, and courageous fighter against racism.”

So, why were her contributions to society so important that she will be immortalized on the nation’s currency? Get acquainted with Desmond with this biography.

A Pioneer Who Gave Back

Desmond was born Viola Irene Davis on July 6, 1914, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She grew up middle class, and her parents, James Albert and Gwendolin Irene Davis, were highly involved in Halifax’s Black community. 

When she came of age, Desmond initially pursued a teaching career. But as a child, Desmond developed an interest in cosmetology due to the dearth of Black haircare products available in her area. The fact that her father worked as a barber must have inspired her as well. 

Halifax’s beauty schools were off limits to Black women, so Desmond traveled to Montreal to attend the Field Beauty Culture School, one of the rare institutions that accepted Black students. She also traveled to the United States to get the expertise she sought. She even trained with Madam C.J. Walker, who became a millionaire for pioneering beauty treatments and products for Black Americans. Desmond’s tenacity paid off when she received a diploma from Apex College of Beauty Culture and Hairdressing in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

When Desmond received the training she needed, she opened a salon of her own, Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax, in 1937. She also opened up a beauty school, Desmond School of Beauty Culture, because she didn’t want other Black women to have to endure the hurdles she had to receive training.

Roughly 15 women graduated from her school each year, and they left equipped with the know-how to open their own salons and provide work for Black women in their communities, as Desmond’s students came from throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec. Like Desmond had, these women had been rejected from all-White beauty schools.

Following in the footsteps of Madam C.J. Walker, Desmond also launched a beauty line called Vi's Beauty Products.

Desmond’s love life overlapped with her professional aspirations. She and her husband, Jack Desmond, launched a hybrid barbershop and beauty salon together. 

Taking a Stand

Nine years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a White man, Desmond refused to sit in the Black section of a movie theater in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She took the stand that would make her a hero in the Black community after her car broke down on November 8, 1946, during a trip she took to sell beauty products. Informed that fixing her car would take a day because the parts to do so weren’t readily available, Desmond decided to see a film called “The Dark Mirror” at New Glasgow’s Roseland Film Theatre.

She purchased a ticket at the box office, but when she entered the theater, the usher told her that she had a balcony ticket, not a ticket for the main floor. So, Desmond, who was nearsighted and needed to sit downstairs to see, went back to the ticket booth to correct the situation. There, the cashier said she wasn't allowed to sell downstairs tickets to Black patrons.

The Black businesswoman refused to sit in the balcony and returned to the main floor. There, she was roughly forced out of her seat, arrested and held overnight in jail. Because it cost one cent more for a main floor ticket than for a balcony ticket, Desmond was charged with tax evasion. For the offense, she paid a $20 fine and $6 in court fees to be released from custody. 

When she arrived home, her husband advised her to drop the matter, but the leaders at her place of worship, Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, urged her to fight for her rights. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People offered its support as well, and Desmond hired a lawyer, Frederick Bissett, to represent her in court. The lawsuit he filed against Roseland Theatre proved unsuccessful because Bissett argued his client was wrongfully accused of tax evasion instead of pointing out that she was discriminated against based on race.

Unlike the United States, Jim Crow wasn’t the law of the land in Canada. So, Bissett may have triumphed had he pointed out that this private movie theater attempted to enforce segregated seating. But just because Canada lacked Jim Crow didn’t mean Black people there eluded racism, which is why Afua Cooper, Black Canadian studies professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told Al Jazeera that Desmond’s case should be viewed through a Canadian lens.

“I think it's about time Canada recognizes its Black citizens, people who have suffered,” Cooper said. "Canada has its own homegrown racism, anti-Black racism, and anti-African racism that it has to deal with without comparing it to the US. We live here. We don’t live in America. Desmond lived in Canada." 

The court case marked the first known legal challenge to segregation presented by a Black woman in Canada, according to the Bank of Canada. Although Desmond lost, her efforts inspired Black Nova Scotians to demand equal treatment and put a spotlight on racial injustice in Canada.

Justice Delayed

Desmond didn’t see justice in her lifetime. For fighting racial discrimination, she received a great deal of negative attention. This likely put a strain on her marriage, which ended in divorce. Desmond eventually relocated to Montreal to attend business school. She later moved to New York, where she died alone of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on February 7, 1965, at age 50.

This courageous woman wasn’t vindicated until April 14, 2010, when the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia issued an official pardon. The pardon recognized that the conviction was wrongful, and Nova Scotia government officials apologized for Desmond’s treatment.

Two years later, Desmond was featured on a Canadian Post stamp.

The beauty entrepreneur’s sister, Wanda Robson, has been a consistent advocate for her and even wrote a book about Desmond called “Sister to Courage.”

When Desmond was chosen to grace Canada’s $10 bill, Robson said, “It’s a big day to have a woman on a banknote, but it’s an especially big day to have your big sister on a banknote. Our family is extremely proud and honored.”

In addition to Robson’s book, Desmond has been featured in the children's book “Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged.” Also, Faith Nolan recorded a song about her. But Davis is not the only civil rights pioneer to be the subject of a recording. Stevie Wonder and rap group Outkast have recorded songs about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, respectively.

A documentary about Desmond's life, “Journey to Justice,” debuted in 2000. Fifteen years later, the government recognized the inaugural Nova Scotia Heritage Day in Desmond's honor. In 2016, the businesswoman was featured in a Historica Canada "Heritage Minute," a quick dramatized look at key events in Canadian history. Actress Kandyse McClure starred as Desmond. 

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How Viola Desmond Challenged Segregation in Canada." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, February 16). How Viola Desmond Challenged Segregation in Canada. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How Viola Desmond Challenged Segregation in Canada." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).