Viola Desmond Honored With Canadian Banknote

Almost a decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated Alabama school bus, Canada’s Viola Desmond refused to give up a seat of her own.

On Nov. 8, 1946, the Nova Scotia businesswoman took a seat downstairs at a New Glasgow movie theater after being told that being Black did not qualify her to do so.

Unaware of the theater’s policy, she took a set in the lower level. Blacks were to watch from the balcony. An usher informed her that her ticket was for the balcony and that she would have to move. When she tried to trade her ticket in for a lower level seat, the cashier refused on account of Desmond’s race. That’s when she returned to her seat and refused to leave.

Desmond, who died in 1965 at the age of 50, was later charged and convicted of failing to pay the extra penny tax required for lower-level seating. She tried and failed to appeal her conviction. But what Desmond didn’t fail at was galvanizing members of the African-American community, who knew her arrest was an issue of race.

Desmond’s case eventually led to the abolition of segregation laws in Nova Scotia in 1954.

Seventy years later, Desmond is making history yet again by becoming the first Canadian woman to appear on a Canadian banknote.

“Desmond’s perseverance, and the attention generated by her case, paved the way for a broader movement to recognize the importance of human rights in Canada,” the Bank of Canada wrote.

Racial segregation in Canada wasn’t enforced the same way as the Jim Crow laws in the U.S., but there was an informal practice of it in places of business such as theaters, hotels and restaurants.

In 2010, Desmond was granted a pardon posthumously by Nova Scotia’s then-lieutenant governor, Mayann Francis. She was also issued a formal apology by the provincial government.

“It’s been a long time to right a wrong, but you have to say something for justice; really it works sometimes,” Desmond’s younger sister, Wanda Robson, told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News years ago. “The wheels of justice grind slowly.”