This week, the Bank of Canada announced that a new face would be gracing the $10 bill – Viola Irene Desmond will be the first woman (other than a monarch) to be featured on a Canadian (or American for that matter!) bank note. Desmond was born in Nova Scotia, to parents who were extremely active in the black community there. She became a civil-rights icon in Canada almost by chance…
Desmond trained to become a beautician in order to serve the African Canadian market – and after training in Montreal, Atlantic City and one of Madame CJ Walker’s schools in New York, she returned to Halifax to open her own salon. She also opened her own school targeted towards black women who had been denied entry into whites-only training schools. She taught women how to open their own businesses and help other black women in their community find employment.
In 1946, a 32-year-old Desmond’s car broke down when she was driving through New Glasgow on a business trip. While she was waiting for it to be fixed, she went to see a film at a local movie theater. Desmond asked for a ticket on the main floor, but was told by the manager that she had to sit in the balcony designated for black people. She returned to the main floor and was forcibly removed from the theater, arrested, and kept in jail overnight without access to a lawyer. She was fined by the courts, and after consulting with community leaders in Halifax, she decided to fight the charges in court. Desmond hired a lawyer, Frederick William Bissett, who attempted to fight the charges in a variety of ways, but ultimately failed. He refused to charge her and his fees were donated to causes furthering the equality of African Canadians.
It was almost 65 years later (and 45 years after her death) that Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon – the first of its kind to be granted in Canada. Desmond is often called the Rosa Parks of Canada – though her protest came almost a decade before Parks. Her story helped spark the modern civil rights movement in Canada. In reflecting back on her story, one wonders what led her to resist – perhaps her parents helped shape her activism, or maybe she just wanted to see the film from the main floor. I can’t help but think that her education influenced her resistance to unfair treatment and her decision to go to court.
70 years ago, Viola Desmond changed the course of Canada’s history with one action. Each of our 2,200 students holds the potential to change the course of Zambia’s history a decade from now. Thank you to each of you for making that a possibility.