Viola Davis Desmond (1914–1965) was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was an African-Canadian who ran her own beauty parlor and beauty college in Halifax. On November 8, 1946, while waiting for her car to be repaired, she decided to go see a movie in the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. She refused to sit in the balcony, which was designated exclusively for Blacks. Instead, she sat on the ground floor, which was for Whites only. She was forcibly removed and arrested.
Viola was found guilty of not paying the one-cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and paid a $26 fine. The trial mainly focused on the issue of tax evasion and not on the discriminatory practices of the theatre. Dissatisfied with the verdict, the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, with Viola’s help, took the case to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. The conviction was upheld.
Eventually, Viola Desmond settled in New York where she died.
More recently, on April 15, 2010, the province of Nova Scotia granted an official apology and a free pardon to Viola. Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis, the first black person to serve as the Queen’s representative in the province of Nova Scotia, presided over a ceremony in Halifax and exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to grant a free pardon to her. Viola’s 83-year-old sister, Wanda Robson, was there to accept the apology. Premier Darrell Dexter also apologized to Viola’s family and all black Nova Scotians for the racism she was subjected to in an incident he called unjust.
In 2016, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and the Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz announced that Viola will be featured on the $10 bill, making her the first Canadian woman to be featured on a Canadian banknote.
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