Viola Desmond: A Canadian Hero

Most Americans know the story of Rosa Parks but few Canadians know the story of Viola Desmond. Racial segregation in Canada was mostly a matter of policy, not law, but that didn’t make it any less real. Viola Desmond was arrested refusing to leave her seat in the floor section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow before being carried out by a police officer and the theatre’s manager. This was in 1946, nine years before Ms. Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Desmond, who died in 1965, received a posthumous pardon last week from Nova Scotia, a declaration that the conviction registered against her was unjust. An editorial in the Globe and Mail tells the story, concluding “Viola Desmond was a woman of courage and vision, who stood up to injustice, and left her mark on the country. Next time you hear the name Rosa Parks, think – ah, the American Viola Desmond.” The Globe and Mail story is here.

6 thoughts on “Viola Desmond: A Canadian Hero

  1. Been trying to find out who she was, apart from a beautician with vision, but so little is known (or rather, available on the internet)! She died at the young age of 51, how, why? Who did she leave behind? How did this incident change her life? Who was Viola Desmond?
    Prof Constance Backhouse did research Viola Desmond, but I think that’s mostly about the case, see this article.
    Anyway, nice that she received an official pardon.

  2. Her sister is still living and was there to hear the pardon. That’s a scrap but it’s all I know.

  3. Next time you hear someone mention Rosa Parks, say/write “Rosa Parks is America’s Viola Desmond.” Then say/write “Both women are heroes!” I am sure a fascinating conversation will follow.

  4. Hippocampa has the correct information, nice to see the link to the Backhouse site. Unfortunately most of the sites about Viola have misinformation, including some of the “better” historical sites. (typical of web information??)
    Viola was born in 1914 in Halifax, the the fifth of 15 children. She was married and had no children. After the theatre incident she returned to her hairdressing career in Halifax for a few years and when she died in New York she was developing an acting agency business.
    Viola died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage.
    There are presently (Jan 2011) four of her sisters still living.

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