TORONTO – Nine years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., Canada’s Viola Desmond, a black businesswoman, defied an order to leave a whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theater, spurring a broader fight for racial equality that helped end segregation in the province.
This week, more than 53 years after her death, Desmond became the first black person and the first woman other than a royal to appear on the front of a regularly circulating Canadian bank note, replacing Sir John Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, as the face of the new, vertically oriented $10 bill.
“It’s unbelievable to think that my sister — a black woman — is on the $10 bill,” Wanda Robson, 91, said at the bank note’s unveiling Monday at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. “The queen is in good company.”
Before her 1946 visit to the movie theater, Desmond, who briefly taught at a segregated school, was no stranger to systemic racism. When she left her teaching job to launch a career as a beautician, Desmond was forced to travel out of the province for training because beauty schools in Nova Scotia barred black people from enrolling.
Canada had no laws like the Jim Crow laws in the United States, but it did have policies that enforced segregation, said Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively on Desmond.
The policies were “just as bad as Jim Crow,” Backhouse said, but they were written in a way that “masked” their racist intent.
Despite these obstacles, Desmond opened her own beauty studio. In fact, the episode that thrust her into the history books happened while she was on a business trip.
When her Dodge sedan broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Desmond, then 32, decided to pass the time waiting for repairs by going to the Roseland Theatre for a screening of “The Dark Mirror,” a psychological thriller and murder mystery.
She bought a ticket and headed to the ground floor because she had trouble seeing. But she was called back and told that her ticket was for the balcony. When Desmond asked to exchange her ticket for a ground-floor seat, the white ticket-seller refused.
Realizing that her request was being refused because of her race, Desmond returned to the ground floor. She was arrested and spent 12 hours in jail, where she was never told of her legal right to counsel or to seek bail.
Desmond was charged with tax evasion for failing to pay 1 cent — the price difference between the floor and balcony seats. Despite the theater’s refusal to sell her the more expensive floor seat, she was convicted and fined $26.
She fought the conviction, and her lawyer asked the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to overturn the lower court’s decision, but this proved fruitless.
Desmond’s fight for racial equality helped spark a movement that dismantled segregation in Nova Scotia in 1954, Backhouse said. Desmond died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage in 1965.
In 2010, the province of Nova Scotia offered an apology and granted Desmond a posthumous pardon.