In 1946, Viola Desmond, a 32-year-old entrepreneur from Halifax, was on a business trip when her car broke down in the small community of New Glasgow in Nova Scotia, Canada. With some extra time to kill while she waited for the repairs, Desmond decided to go see a movie, and headed to the Roseland Theater at the corner of Forbes and Provost Streets. She requested and paid for a seat to see a noir called The Dark Mirror on the theater's main floor—but because she was black, the cashier gave her a ticket and the appropriate change for the balcony section.
Unaware that she had been given a balcony ticket, Desmond proceeded into the main-floor seating area, where the ticket-taker told her she'd have to go upstairs. She assumed that there had been a mistake, but when she went back to the cashier to ask again for a main-floor ticket, the cashier reportedly replied, "I'm sorry, but I'm not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people."
Desmond was used to finding a way when racially motivated roadblocks were thrown at her. When she was denied entrance to Halifax beauty schools because of her skin color, she trained in Montreal, New York, and New Jersey, then created her own beauty studio and school in Halifax, drawing black women from across Canada's east coast. She also created her own line of black beauty care products. So, being a woman used to making her own path, once Desmond realized she was being discriminated against, she courageously strode back inside the theater to take a seat on the main floor.
She was just settling in to enjoy the movie when she was confronted by the theater manager. Desmond stood her ground, but the police soon arrived and forcibly removed her from the theater, injuring her hip and knee in the process.
She spent the night in jail, though not for disobeying segregation laws; there weren't any. Instead, officials got her on a trumped-up claim of defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia. They alleged that she had failed to pay one cent in amusement tax—that is, the difference in the amount of tax charged on a main floor and balcony seat. Under a 1915 Canadian licensing statute, those who entered a theater without paying the proper amount of amusement tax could be arrested without a warrant and fined.
Realizing that the ludicrous charge was a way to punish her for refusing to bow to the unofficial segregation rules of the day, Desmond challenged the decision all the way to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Unfortunately, she lost the trial, and the charges stood.
Desmond died in 1965 at age 50. She may not have gotten justice during her lifetime, but her actions were a galvanizing force for the civil rights movement in Canada. And almost 65 years after the theater incident, the Canadian government tried to set things right. In 2010, a cultural studies professor from Nova Scotia worked with Desmond's sister, Wanda Robson, to secure a posthumous pardon from Nova Scotia's lieutenant governor as well as an apology from the province's premier. (The pair teamed up after Wanda, then 73, took Professor Graham Reynolds's class at Cape Breton University. As Reynolds was telling a story about Viola, Wanda piped up and said "Hey, that's my sister.")
Since then, the civil rights pioneer has been on a Canada Post stamp and had a passenger ferry named for her, while plans for streets bearing her name are in the works in Montreal and Halifax. She has also been honored with the creation of the Viola Desmond Chair of Social Justice at Cape Breton University.
And soon, Canadians will be seeing a lot more of her. In late 2016, she was chosen as the first Canadian woman to appear on a $10 bill. The design for the bill was unveiled on March 8, 2018, and features a violet-hued portrait of Viola on the front, plus images of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on the back. The bill also includes an eagle feather, which the Bank of Canada says represents "the ongoing journey toward recognizing rights and freedoms for Indigenous Peoples in Canada." The banknote will enter into circulation later in 2018.
Speaking of Viola at the unveiling, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said, "Her story serves as inspiration to all Canadians and acts as a powerful reminder of how one person’s actions can help trigger change across generations."
As for Viola's sister Wanda, she said at the unveiling that seeing the new bill had left her speechless. "This is amazing, unique, and our family will go down in history. Imagine that."