Who was Viola Desmond?


It is a recent news that the Canadian $10 bill has won the top prize in an international banknote competition. This note had to beat 15 other banknotes to win the International Bank Note Society award. The $10 Canadian bill features Viola Desmond. She became the first Canadian woman to be featured prominently on a banknote. But who was she exactly and what did she do to be featured in the Canadian bill.

Viola Desmond was a Canadian businesswoman and a civil libertarian. Born to an intermarriage couple (black father and white mother) on 6 July 1914, Viola was raised with her other 10 siblings in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Desmond wanted to become a successful independent businesswoman, because of her surrounding and supportive and liberal parents she could aspire such thing and eventually achieve it in the longer run of her life. She was initially a teacher at a racially segregated school, she would teach the black students and later she began a program of study at the Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal. This program was one of the only one to accept applications of black people. Desmond also opened Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax, catering to the black community. Her institution gave opportunities to black women to learn new things and get jobs. She also opened a beauty school and introduced a range of beauty products. Her life was going normal when an event took place in her life that made her who she was.

On November 8, 1946, she decided to watch a movie in Nova Scotia because her car broke down while going to a meeting. Desmond demanded a main floor ticket to watch, but the ticket seller gave her a balcony ticket instead. She noticed this only after the ticket taker caught her when she went to sit in the main floor. On questioning the ticket seller she was answered saying that “coloured people” were not given the ticket of the main floor. On listening to this she decided to not give in to the racial discrimination and continued to sit in the main floor. The manager then confronted her and told that they can restrict the entry of any “objectionable person”. The police were called at the venue and she was dragged out of the cinema hall, giving her a few injuries, and then taken to jail. The next day at the court she was trailed for not agreeing to pay the extra charge required to sit in the main floor, which was false as she kept on mentioning that she was ready to pay the difference in the charge of the ticket. She was fined $26 by the judge.

Others in the community were less accepting, the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of coloured People (NSAACP) raised money to fight her conviction. She approached the Supreme Court again, the supreme justice of Nova Scotia ruled out her case saying that the decision of the original magistrate should have been appealed to the country court. The case didn’t continue, neither were the accused punished, but her choice to not budge at all in front of the strong and stubborn institutions by standing against it and standing on the behalf of the whole coloured and vulnerable community was a huge start to people realizing their strength. There were various mobilization and demonstrations followed by this incident and all the black people were refusing to accept the inferior status given mandatorily to them.

This story of Desmond got the spotlight it deserved after her sister Wanda enrolled in a course on racial relationship and told people the incident that changed all the weaker sections of society in Nova Scotia. Viola Desmond became the first non-royal woman to be featured on a currency note, which she rightly deserves.

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