Viola Desmond challenged racial segregation, she helped start the civil rights movement in Canada, and next year she will be the first Canadian women to be featured on a banknote.
In 1946 at a film theatre in New Glasgow Nova Scotia, Ms. Desmond tried to buy a ticket in the lower section of the viewing area. When the company refused to sell it to her because of the colour of her skin, she sat there anyways, and then later was convicted of a tax violation for having the wrong ticket, and sent to jail for the night.
Her case is one of the most famous incidents of racial discrimination in Canada, and it was a turning point for the rights of many people in this country. Dr. Stephanie Bangarth, a history professor from Kings College, explains that “Ms. Desmond really highlighted the issue of Jim Crow in Canada, and that prior to this event, not knowing where a person of colour would be served was a huge problem for African Canadians.”
Racism was obviously a huge issue south of the Canadian border, however Professor Bangarth notes that “there were some challenges African Canadians faced that African Americans did not; there weren’t labels above water fountains, or signs in restaurants that said “No Blacks” or “Whites Only.””
There’s no doubt that what Ms. Desmond did forever changed the lives of black people in this country, but it’s unlikely that she intended to start this shift in racial discrimination. Nevertheless, she was one of the key figures that started the movement to oppose racial discrimination in the courts, and to change laws throughout Canada.
Viola Desmond is one of the most influential civil rights activists and is often referred to as the Canadian Rosa Parks. But Professor Bangarth doesn’t feel this is a fitting nickname. She thinks, if anything, “Rosa Parks should be named the American Viola Desmond because what Ms. Desmond did in 1946 certainly predates Rosa Parks actions in 1955.”
After Viola Desmond passed away, the government of Canada apologized for convicting her, and acknowledged she was rightly resisting racial discrimination. Viola Desmond truly embodied the characteristics that make this country the welcoming nation it is today. She was a civil right activist, a person who improved our country, and a true Canadian hero.