By Rosemary Eng
Nine years before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a standing white person, a black Nova Scotian woman, Viola Desmond, was dragged to jail by police for sitting in the whites-only section of a movie theater.
Now 70 years later, the black beautician who defied the movie theater law in Nova Scotia will be the face on Canada’s $10 banknote starting in 2018, the Bank of Canada, the country’s central bank, announced December 8.
Desmond, a successful businesswoman, was jailed 30 days for her act of defiance, convicted and fined. Her court case was the first-known legal challenge to racial segregation brought forth by a black woman in Canada.
At the Bank of Canada announcement, Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau said Viola Desmond’s story of courage, strength and determination “reminds all of us that big change can start with moments of dignity and bravery.” Desmond’s case eventually led to the abolition in 1954 of Nova Scotia segregation laws.
Desmond studied at Madam C. J. Walker’s School in New York, a school started by entrepreneur and civil rights activist Sarah Breedlove who developed hair care products for African-Americans women. Desmond established Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture and developed her own line of beauty products.
After her arrest, she moved to Montreal. We don’t know if it was because of the notoriety or if she suffered threats, commented Craig Smith, president of the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia.
Desmond was unsuccessful in appealing her conviction before her death in 1965.
Her story has not sat well with the Nova Scotian black community. Desmond’s story was brought to the attention of Mayann Elizabeth Francis, a Nova Scotian who in 2006 became the province’s black lieutenant governor. By 2010 Francis assured that Desmond received a posthumous free pardon from the Nova Scotia government.
Desmond will become the first woman to be on the face of a Canadian banknote besides the reigning monarch.
The banknote announcement has sparked new interest in Canadian black history, said Russell Grosse, executive director of African Nova Scotian Museum.
The struggle of black Nova Scotians, who make up about three per cent of the provincial population, is similar to that of African Americans. Many are marginalized and unemployed.
Smith said the original black population was settled on rural land, well outside the city limits. They survived by working in agriculture.
Smith, who is also a sergeant in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) watch command in Halifax, said today’s young blacks are involved with drugs and guns, though not at the same level as in the U. S.
They need positive role models, said Grosse. On President Barack Obama’s inauguration day, “it was a big thing here. All across the community, everyone was watching.”
Martin Luther King Day is celebrated in Nova Scotia. Smith calls it the “trickle up effect,” when black Canadians are encouraged by the accomplishments of African Americans.
Blacks in Canada
Of a total of some 2000 slaves who entered Canada in 1783-4, more than half went to the Atlantic Provinces, with Nova Scotia receiving the largest number.
The treatment of slaves in Canada was just as brutal as in the United States. They were punished for disobeying their masters, whipped, tortured or sometimes killed. Eventually laws changed to make killing slaves as serious a crime as killing a freedman.
A big jump in the Canadian black population started with increased immigration from the Caribbean and Africa.
By 1981 the black population in Canada jumped substantially to 239,500 and then more than doubled to 662,200 by the 2001 census.
Click this link to view a film clip on Viola Desmond.
Click this link to view the Black Cultural Center for Nova Scotia’s presentation on the history of
of blacks in Canada.