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Viola Davis Desmond (July 6, 1914 – February 7, 1965) was an African-Nova Scotian who bought her own beauty parlour and beauty college in Halifax. Desmond’s story was one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Nova Scotian and Canadian history.
On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond refused to sit in the balcony designated exclusively for blacks in the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow but, instead, she took her seat on the ground floor where only white people were allowed to sit.
The police were summoned immediately and she was dragged out, which injured her hip. She was charged and held overnight in jail; she was not advised of her rights.
Maintaining her dignity, Desmond remained sitting upright, wearing her white gloves (a sign of sophistication and class at the time). The following morning, despite not having done anything wrong, she paid the imposed fine of $20. Besides being fined, she was charged with defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia of the difference in the tax between a ground floor and a balcony seat, which amounted to one cent.
While discussing the incident with the doctor who tended to her, Desmond decided to fight the charges. Clearly, the issue was about her being African Canadian and there being a racist seating policy in place; it was not about tax evasion. In taking the matter to the courts, Viola Desmond’s experience helped to galvanize public opinion locally and internationally, and to raise awareness about the reality of Canadian segregation.
After being forcibly removed from the theatre and arrested, Desmond was eventually found guilty of not paying the one-cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket. She wasfined $20 ($251.30 in 2010) and court costs ($6). She paid the fine but decided to fight the charge in court.
During subsequent trials the government insisted on arguing that this was a case of tax evasion. Retail sales tax was calculated based on the price of the theatre ticket. Since the theatre would only agree to sell the Black woman a cheaper balcony ticket, but she had insisted upon sitting in the more expensive main floor seat, she was one cent short on tax. For her crime of so-called tax evasion, she was removed from the theatre, thrown in jail overnight, tried without counsel, convicted and fined. During the trial, no one admitted that Viola Desmond was Black, and that the theatre maintained a racist seating policy. The trial proceeded as if it related to race-neutral tax evasion. All efforts to have the conviction overturned at higher levels of court failed. Her lawyer returned her fee which she used to set up a fund that was eventually used to support activities of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP).
After the trial, Desmond closed her business and then moved to Montreal where she could enroll in a business college. She eventually settled in New York where she died on February 7, 1965 at the age of 50.
While the case received little attention outside of Nova Scotia, it has since gained notoriety as one of many cases fought for civil rights in the mid-20th century. Many of those familiar with Viola Desmond’s courageous stand compare her to famed civil-rights activist, Rosa Parks and her 1955 refusal to vacate a bus seat so that a white passenger could sit down.
On April 14, 2010, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Mayann Francis, on the advice of her premier, invoked the Royal Prerogative and granted Desmond a posthumous pardon, the first such to be granted in Canada. The government of Nova Scotia also apologised
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