Viola Desmond (1914 – 1965)

Viola Desmond
Winnipeg Free Press, 1940

Viola Desmond was a Nova Scotia businesswoman and civil rights crusader. A former teacher turned cosmetologist, she did not set out to become an activist. In 1946, while waiting for her car to be repaired in New Glasgow, Desmond went to a movie theatre and inadvertently sat in a "whites only" section. When she was ordered to leave, she refused and was forcefully arrested, fined and locked in a jail cell for the night. Her courageous act laid bare the realities of racism in Canada. Desmond devoted the rest of her life to fighting racism and injustice. She was issued a posthumous pardon by the Nova Scotia government in 2010 and in 2016 became the first Canadian woman to be depicted on a Canadian banknote.

“It was in the ’40s, she had her own business, she bought a car, was taught how to drive, these were things that were foreign to most women. But a black woman owning her own business and making a good living – better than good – that was definitely unique. She was one of a kind, I’d say, at that time.” (Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond)

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