What might Canada have been like without Viola Desmond?

Is history made by extraordinary people, or by the movements and moments around them? Viola Desmond's story suggests it might be both.

It's hard to overstate the courage of the woman whose face will soon grace Canada's $10 bill.

Welcome time travellers! Inspired by the missing journal pages in Murdoch Mysteries: Beyond Time, we're exploring what Canada might have been like without a few extraordinary citizens. 


Is history made by extraordinary people or by the movements and moments around them? Viola Desmond's story suggests it might be both.

It's hard to overstate the courage of the woman whose face will soon grace Canada's $10 bill. When Viola Desmond took a stand against racial discrimination in 1940s Nova Scotia, she wasn't an established civil rights leader.

Desmond owned a beauty parlour and beautician's school — a remarkable accomplishment for a black woman in a time when black Canadians were shut out of many parts of public life.

Viola Desmond in her studio, circa 1938. (Wanda Robson Collection, Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University/Bank of Canada/Flickr)

Black children were barred from attending common schools with white children in Nova Scotia. The Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees — a powerful national railway workers union — fought to exclude black workers from membership. In World War I, black soldiers were forced to fight in a segregated unit. Viola Desmond herself began her career as a teacher, but was only allowed to teach in black schools.

When she found herself in the town of New Glasgow on November 8, 1946, she wasn't looking for a fight. Desmond was on a business trip from Halifax to sell beauty products when her car broke down. The mechanic told her she'd have to wait overnight for parts to come in. That's when she decided to spend the evening watching a movie at New Glasgow's Roseland Theatre.

At the box office, she asked for a ticket for a downstairs seat. When she took a seat on the main floor though, an usher told her she had a balcony ticket. When she went back to the box office to ask again for a downstairs ticket, they told her, "We're not allowed to sell tickets to you people."

Desmond had unknowingly crossed one of the unwritten colour lines. 

Short term loss, long term gain

Desmond could have taken the easy way out more than once. But she not only refused to move up to the balcony, she went to sit downstairs again and resisted when the manager called a white police officer to drag her away by force. When she was brought into court the next morning and charged with cheating the province out of a penny's difference in tax between the upstairs and downstairs tickets, she argued in her own defense.

When she lost and was fined $26; she appealed her case at the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

That court ruled against her on a technicality.

Viola Desmond has been called the "Rosa Parks of Canada" for fighting against racial segregation in a Nova Scotia theatre. Now, she's the focus of a new Heritage Minute by Historica Canada. 5:57

In the 1950s, Nova Scotia passed two important anti-discrimination laws. Civil rights were finally enshrined nationally in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. And in 2010, the Nova Scotia government granted Desmond an unprecedented mercy free pardon, acknowledging that she was "wrongfully fined and jailed" under the province's laws.

Her story emboldened others though. As it gains attention in our classrooms, it's bringing more attention to Canada's web of discrimination.

Putting Desmond in context 

But as remarkable as Desmond's bravery and legacy were, she didn't live in a vacuum.

In 1914 — the year Desmond was born — a black railway worker named Charles Daniels stood up against very similar discrimination in Calgary. He bought a ticket to see King Lear at Calgary's Sherman Grand Theatre, but the box office refused to let him sit on the main floor. Daniels filed a discrimination lawsuit against the manager and owner. Incredibly, he was awarded $1000 in damages.

Carrie Best unsuccessfully challenged the segregated seating at the Roseland Theatre five years before Desmond took a stand there. (CBC)

When Desmond appealed her case decades later, she was backed by the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples. Their co-founder, Pearleen Oliver, also helped push down the barrier preventing black women from working as nurses in Canada. What's more, Carrie M. Best had unsuccessfully challenged the segregated seating at the Roseland Theatre five years before Desmond took a stand there.

So while Viola Desmond has become a symbol for a movement fighting to allow all Canadians to participate fully in public life, many of these systems of discrimination might still have fallen if she hadn't taken a stand. Canada no longer forces black soldiers into racially segregated units or black students into racially segregated schools. Others called out those injustices long before her time.

But symbols matter, and her symbolic act accelerated a fight for justice that had been in motion for centuries.​

Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond. (Wanda Robson)

About the Author

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips is the Historian Laureate for the City of Edmonton and News Coordinator at CJSR 88.5 FM. He also produces a monthly history podcast called Let's Find Out where he asks Edmontonians for questions about local history, and then they find out the answers together.

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