Making History: Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond was born on July 6th, 1914 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to a White Mother and a Black Father. Her parents were avid activists for the black community. Desmond went on to become a revolutionary beautician and salon owner who schooled with the world-renowned Madam C. J. Walker. She noted throughout her life the lack of beauty products and services available to address the needs of women with darker complexions, and Black women with Afro-textured hair. She also successfully started selling her own line of beauty products, known as Vi’s Beauty Products. On November 8th 1946, the tale that gave Viola Desmond her fame took place, and it was not the most desirable avenue towards becoming a household name. She was travelling to showcase her beauty products, when her car broke down in New Glasgow. She was informed that it would take a day before it could be fixed. While waiting, Ms. Desmond decided to catch a movie at the Roseland Film Theatre entitled “The Dark Mirror”. While there were no official laws to enforce segregation at the time in New Glasgow, there was a sign informing patrons of the policy that noted seats on the main floor were reserved for “White Patrons”. Ms. Desmond did not see the sign, and as such, found herself a seat with a view in the floor section, close enough so that she would be able to see properly, as she was nearsighted. Ms. Desmond was asked to move, but refused to as her seat gave her a better view than any other section would have. She was forcibly removed from the theatre, resulting in a serious hip injury. She was arrested, spent 12 hours in jail and was fined $20.00 (quite a hefty sum in those days). The theatre had a ridiculous fee policy in place at the time, the balcony price of 20 cents was taxed at two cents, while the floor price of 40 cents was taxed at three cents. As a result of these Ms. Desmond found herself convicted of tax evasion for 1 cent. She was kept in jail overnight, and was never informed about her Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Section 10 right to legal advice or counsel, or Charter Section 11 right to bail.
Despite her husband’s advice to move on in peace from these occurrences, Ms. Desmond was determined to be proactive about how gravely she had been mistreated. She approached the leaders of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, and Minister William Pearly Oliver along with his wife Pearline expressed their support for her. So, Ms. Desmond decided to take her matter to court, to seek true justice for what had been done to her. At the same moment, Carrie Best broke Ms. Desmond’s story in The Clarion, Nova Scotia’s very fist Black-owned newspaper. History was being made by Ms. Desmond’s movement in more ways than one. Ms. Desmond, with the NSAACP (Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) and her Church behind her, hired Frederick William Bissett to act as her lawyer. Though he was unsuccessful in his suit against the Roseland Theatre, he was relentless in his representation of Ms. Desmond, who had been seriously marginalized. Following her case, Mr. Bissett did not bill Ms. Desmond and instead donated the funds towards the NSAACP’s initiatives. The government continued to refer to this case being one that solely had to do with tax evasion, citing a provincial act which regulated movie theatres, and required the payment of an amusement tax.

However, when Justice William Lorimer Hall was reading his final judgement dismissing the case, he had some interesting words:
“Had the matter reached the court by some other method than certiorari there might have been an opportunity to right the wrong done this unfortunate woman. One wonders if the manager of the theatre who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide belief that there had been an attempt to defraud the province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavour to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.”
I personally commend Justice Hall for his thoughtful analysis of the matter, he did his job as a judge, and applied the law in the best possible way. Despite the decision to dismiss Ms. Desmond’s case, he did pose this very important question to the court, and, the entire White Community of Nova Scotia at the time. This is arguably the best way to fill the role of a judge, applying the rule of law, but also questioning the current law and whether or not it serves a greater purpose for all members of the general public within that law’s jurisdiction.

All in all, today every Canadian, Black, Brown or White remembers Viola Desmond as an absolute pioneer for equality and basic human rights for all. She was, and remains an inspiration to us all, that even if the odds are against you, keep pushing and someday, you will see the fruits of your actions, no matter how minute they may seem at the time.

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