Viola Desmond’s courage a source of inspiration

By Murphy Browne Wednesday November 07 2012 in Opinion
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On behalf of the Nova Scotia government, I sincerely apologize to Viola Desmond’s family and to all African-Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination she was subjected to by the justice system in November 1946.


The arrest, detainment, and conviction of Viola Desmond is an example in our history where the law was used to perpetuate racism and racial segregation – this is contrary to the values of Canadian society. We recognize today that the act for which Viola Desmond was arrested, was an act of courage, not an offence.


Excerpt from official apology by Nova Scotia Premier, Darrell Dexter, on April 15, 2010.


On November 8, 1946, Viola Davis Desmond, a 32-year-old African-Canadian businesswoman, was arrested at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Desmond was a successful entrepreneur and owner of a beauty parlour and beauty school. This kind of business success was almost unheard of for women in Canada at the time and especially for African-Canadian women.


On November 8, 1946, Desmond was traveling on business from her Halifax, Nova Scotia home when she experienced car trouble in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She took her car to a garage and while the car was being repaired, decided to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre.


She bought a ticket for the main floor of the theatre, went in and sat down. She was unaware of the theatre’s policy that the main floor was a “Whites only” seating area because, unlike the blatant White supremacist Jim Crow laws of the U.S., there were no “Whites” and “coloured” signs posted and she did not know that African-Canadians were relegated to the balcony.


When Desmond was ordered to move, she replied that she could not see from the balcony, that she had paid to sit on the main floor and that she would not move. The manager left the theatre and came back with a policeman. Together, the two burly White men dragged the slim, 4’11” Desmond into the street, injuring her in the process.


The White supremacist culture in Canada is much more subtle than in the U.S. and Desmond was charged with defrauding the government of one cent instead of the real charge which was “sitting in the White people’s section” of the cinema.


She spent the night in jail in the same block as male prisoners. The next morning, she was  tried and found guilty of tax evasion. She was found guilty of not having paid the entertainment tax (one cent) that was the difference between the “White” section and the “coloured” section of the cinema.


The White woman who sold her the ticket denied Desmond’s request to purchase a ticket for the first floor. Instead, she sold Desmond a ticket for the balcony. The sentence was 30 days in jail or a fine of $20, plus $6 to the manager of the theatre, one of the two men who had injured her as he dragged her out of the cinema the night before.


Desmond paid the fine and subsequently challenged the guilty verdict in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. She was supported in her struggle for justice by fellow African-Canadian and civil rights activist, Carrie Best, who publicized the case in The Clarion newspaper. The Clarion was established in 1946 by Best and was the first African-Canadian owned and published newspaper in Nova Scotia.


In spite of their efforts and the support of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia upheld the guilty verdict. Desmond remained guilty of defrauding the government of one cent until April 15, 2010, when she was granted a posthumous pardon.


A press release from the Nova Scotia Premier’s office read in part: “The province has granted an official apology and free pardon to the late Viola Desmond. Mrs. Desmond, of Halifax, was an African-Canadian wrongfully jailed and fined in 1946 for sitting in the White peoples’ section of a New Glasgow movie theatre. Mrs. Desmond passed away in 1965. On the advice of the Executive Council, the lieutenant governor has exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to grant a Free Pardon. A free pardon is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was in error. A free pardon is an extraordinary remedy and is considered only in the rarest of circumstances. This is the first time a free pardon has been posthumously granted in Canada.”


What the press release of Desmond’s eventual pardon did not include was the fact that Desmond left Nova Scotia and eventually settled in New York, where she transitioned on February 7, 1965, just five months before her 51st birthday.


After 64 years, the government of Nova Scotia acknowledged what had been hinted at by Justice William Hall, one of the judges who dismissed Desmond’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in April 1947:


“One wonders if the manager of the theatre…was so zealous because of a bona fide belief there had been an attempt to defraud the Province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavour to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.”


The White supremacist seating policy of the Roseland Theatre was never acknowledged, which is typical Canadian racism at work; instead of signs indicating segregated seats in the theatre, tax laws were used to disguise bona fide segregation. The Nova Scotia government at the time insisted on arguing that the Viola Desmond case was a case of tax evasion.


Viola Desmond’s case did not receive much publicity outside of Nova Scotia, unlike the similar case of Rosa Parks to whom she is compared although her struggle took place more than nine years before Parks’ case. Since then, Desmond’s story has been told in several books including Sister to Courage, published in 2010 by Desmond’s younger sister, Wanda Robson. Her story is also told in the Long Road to Justice – The Viola Desmond Story (


In 2012, Desmond was honoured with a Canadian postage stamp. In spite of this, most Canadians know more about Rosa Parks than they do about Viola Desmond. This is due in part to the covert/undercover nature of Canada’s White supremacist culture with the myth of a successful Canadian multiculturalism. The history that is taught in the education system is Eurocentric, not multicultural.


We know about the enslavement of Africans in the U.S. since it is well-documented but in Canada, a discussion about the enslavement of Africans is mostly about those who fled slavery in the U.S. and sought refuge in Canada.


We do know the names of some of the Africans who resisted their enslavement in Canada, including Chloe Cooley, Marie-Joseph Angélique, Peggy Pompadour and others whose names appear in “for sale” advertisements and bounty hunter type advertisements.


Some of those Africans enslaved in Canada fled south of the border to states in America, where slavery was abolished (e.g., Vermont 1777). Slavery was eventually abolished in Canada on August 1, 1834. The resistance of enslaved Africans contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery.


Viola Desmond did not win her case but her determination encouraged successive generations to continue to fight for their rights. In the 21st century, the struggle continues on various fronts and freedom fighters emerge regularly.


Like Desmond, they may not win their battle, but they inspire successive generations to continue the struggle.


  • AnDrew Spellen said:

    Canada continues to be a racist country, even though it claims to be multicultural! People of colour are kept out of political office, out of the board room, and are over represented in the criminal population. For all intents and purposes Canada is more racist than the States because it is done covertly!

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    Friday November 09 at 7:02 am

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