Viola Davis Desmond: Canada’s Trailblazing Precursor to Rosa Parks

Almost a decade before Rosa Parks bravely refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, Viola Davis Desmond was helping ignite the civil rights movement in Canada. She did this by declining to leave the whites-only area of a theatre in Nova Scotia. She was arrested, initially denied legal representation, and unfairly and erroneously convicted of tax evasion. 

Despite gracing the ten-dollar bill, the life and achievements of Viola Davis Desmond are still largely unrecognized. She should be celebrated as a pioneer for women entrepreneurs, a community leader and an early and important figure in Canada’s civil rights movement. 

Born in 1914, into a middle-class family in Halifax, Desmond was one of 10 children raised by a white mother, Gwendoline Irene Davis, and a Black father, James Albert Davis. She dreamed of owning a beauty salon, but Nova Scotia banned Black women from studying the beauty industry. This led her to earn diplomas in Montreal and New York. 

After completing her education, she realized her dream of owning and operating a beauty salon and beauty school, both of which were successful. These businesses focused on hair and skin products for Black women, which was uncommon at the time despite there being a distinct need in the market. Her business ventures were geared towards providing the same convenience and access to beauty and care that white women living on the East Coast enjoyed. It is reported that 15 Black women graduated from her beauty school every year, after being refused admission into other schools that adhered to a whites-only policy.

In November 1946, Desmond’s life took a turn. She was on her way from Halifax to Sydney, Nova Scotia when car trouble forced her to stop in New Glasgow. She decided to visit the local movie theatre but refused to comply with their segregated seating policy. What happened next changed Canada: she was forcibly removed from the venue by theatre workers, unjustly charged by local authorities and eventually convicted on a trumped-up tax evasion charge.   

The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) had been recently established. They took up Desmond’s cause and worked with a lawyer, Frederick William Bassett, to overturn the conviction. While their legal defense proved unsuccessful, they were successful in spurring the civil rights movement for Black Nova Scotians. This was a turning point for all of Canada.   

Desmond died in 1965 at the age of 50 and is buried at Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax. Her legacy continues to this day and will hopefully grow going forward. In 2010, a posthumous free pardon, the first ever in Canada, was granted by the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia for the injustice she suffered in 1946. In 2018, Desmond received more well-deserved honours: she was named a National Historic Person and also became the first Canadian woman to appear solo on a Canadian bank note.

Rob Shapiro | Contributing Writer

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