Viola Desmond (1914-1965) was a Canadian businesswoman who mentored young Black women in Nova Scotia. She later became a Civil Rights activist and today, is the face of the Canadian ten dollar bill.
Her story about determination and fighting for civil rights has made her an inspiration to a later generation of Black persons in Nova Scotia & all of Canada.
Viola's parents instilled hard work & support of community, to which Viola grew aspirations to become an independent businesswomen herself.
Growing up, Viola found that there was a lack of professional hair and skin-care products for black women, so she set out to make a change and chose to become a beautician. Unable to go to school in Nova Scotia because she was black, she attended school in Montreal, Atlantic City, New Jersey & New York. Upon returning to Nova Scotia and running her own salon, she then opened the "The Desmond School of Beauty Culture" so that black women did not have to travel far for training. She then later created a line of beauty products, which were sold at venues owned by graduates of her beauty school.
In 1946, after her car broke down and while waiting for it to be fixed, she decided to go see a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She asked for a movie ticket for the main floor of the theatre. When trying to sit on the main floor, she was told that she had not paid the ticket price for the floor and would have to return to the balcony, to which she said she would pay the higher price ticket (1 cent) but was told that he could not sell her the ticket. Viola then decided to challenge the seating and made her way to to main floor, where she was arrested and brought to jail, She was convicted of a minor tax violation and issued a sentence of 30 days in jail or a fine for $26 - Viola chose to pay the fine. Despite many efforts to have the ticket and her record reversed, she was never successful in the pursuit.
In 2010, many years after Viola had passed away, the Nova Scotia Lieutenant Governor granted a free pardon and a public apology was given at a ceremony. Later that year, the "Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice" was established at the Cape Breton University.
In 2018, Viola became the face of Canada’s $10 banknote, making Desmond the first nonroyal woman to appear alone on the country’s currency and the first Black person to be depicted on Canadian currency.
This past week, after nearly 75 years after Viola was arrested, her $26 fine and court fees have been repaid by the Province of Nova Scotia. The interest-adjusted fine was estimated to be $368.29, however the province topped it up to $1,000 and presented the money to her sister Wanda Robson during a virtual ceremony. The idea to repay the fine originated from Varishini Deochand, a student from Vaughan, Ontario, who asked the province to consider the symbolic reimbursement after learning about Desmond’s story.
Viola Desmond was a trailblazer in her time and a true Women in Leadership.