Viola Desmond: Canadian #AtoZChallenge

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When I asked my friends for ideas for V, W, X and Y, my brother – high school teacher, adult night school teacher, diversity advocate and all-round great guy – suggested Viola Desmond.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was originally going to be my ‘V’ topic, but I plan to write about it anyway outside of the #AtoZ Challenge.

I didn’t know who Viola Irene Desmond was – so this was also a great learning project for myself.

You might say that Mrs. Desmond was the Rosa Parks of Canada. But she was about a decade ahead.

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Viola Desmond grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but the real start of her plight happened in New Glasgow, NS in 1946.  When waiting for car repairs, she decided to treat herself to a movie, buying a ticket at the local theatre and taking a seat in the main auditorium. However, as she soon discovered, that particular theatre had segregated seating.  White folk were allowed to sit in the main auditorium while Black folk were forced to sit up in the balcony sections.  She was ordered to move, refused, and ultimately charged and jailed overnight.

The charge?  Tax evasion.  The balcony seats were 1 cent cheaper.  Viola was accused of sitting in an area to which she hadn’t paid.  Not for defying segregation in the theatre.

She decided to fight the charge in court with the help of her pro bono lawyer, Frederick William Bissett, but they lost the case.  Viola then chose to close her salons in Nova Scotia, study business in Montreal then settle in New York City.  She died at the age of 50 and buried back in Halifax.

Finally, in 2010, forty-five years after she died, the Nova Scotia provincial government issued a formal apology for the incident and the Lieutenant-Governor granted her a posthumous free pardon; acknowledging that Viola was innocent and the charges were made in error and clearing her name.

In 2012, Viola appeared on a Canada Post commemorative stamp:

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