Who Is Viola Desmond?

A passenger ferry in the Halifax Harbour was named for Viola Desmond. Editorial credit: Algeo / Shutterstock.com.
A passenger ferry in the Halifax Harbour was named for Viola Desmond. Editorial credit: Algeo / Shutterstock.com.

The Canadian 10-dollar note is a common banknote in circulation in Canada. Several prominent Canadians are featured or have been featured on versions of the bill including Mary, the Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood, George VI, Elizabeth II, and John A. Macdonald. A 2018 series of the ten-dollar was unveiled on March 8, 2018. The vertical banknote features Viola Desmond on the reverse of the bill.

Who Was Viola Desmond?

Viola Desmond was a human rights activist who stood up for the rights of black Canadians. She challenged racial discrimination at a theater in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946 by refusing to vacate an area of the theater that was unofficially "white-only". Viola Desmond was arrested and charged for tax violation since the difference between the seat she had paid for and the one she sat on was one cent. Her case went on to become a popular racial discrimination incident in the history of Canada. The case marked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in the country.

Viola Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon in 2010, with the government of Nova Scotia apologizing for her prosecution. She has been honored by becoming the first Canadian-born woman to appear on $10 bill alone.

Early Life of Viola Desmond

Born on July 6, 1914, Viola Irene Desmond had nine siblings. Although it was unusual at the time, her mother was white her father was black. At an early age, Viola realized that there were no hair and skin-care products locally available to black women in Nova Scotia. She took it upon herself to address that. However, as a black woman, she was not allowed to train and become a beautician in Halifax. She moved to Montreal and then New York for her training. After her training, she came back to Halifax and opened a salon. She also opened a school of beauty for black women in Nova Scotia, with approximately 15 women graduating every year.

Arrest of Viola Desmond

On November 8, 1946, at the age of 32, Viola traveled to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia to sell her beauty products. On the way, her car broke down and she was told that it could only be fixed the following day. To pass time, Viola decided to buy a ticket for the film “The Dark Mirror” that was showing at the Roseland Film Theater. She took a seat on the main floor seat, in an area which that theater had unofficially reserved for "white patrons only". When told to move to the balcony, Viola Desmond refused. She was then forcibly removed, arrested, and taken to jail. She was charged with tax evasion and fined C$20 and $6 for the court case which she paid. When she returned to Halifax, she was encouraged by the local community to fight the charge in court. The criminal trial was unsuccessful and the case was dismissed.


Following the unsuccessful trial, Desmond closed her business and relocated to Montreal where she registered at a business college. She later relocated to New York where she settled until her death on February 7, 1965. She was buried in Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since her death, the Government of Nova Scotia has apologized for her death and admitted that it was wrongful.


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