A portrait of Viola Desmond, a businesswoman and civil rights advocate, circa 1940.. Long before American Rosa Parks, this enterprising black Nova Scotia businesswoman stood up for her rights started a long lasting debate about segregation in the province and resulting eventually in repeal of racist laws

A portrait of Viola Desmond, a businesswoman and civil rights advocate, circa 1940.. Long before American Rosa Parks, this enterprising black Nova Scotia businesswoman stood up for her rights and started a long lasting debate about segregation in the province resulting eventually in repeal of racist laws
Photo Credit: Communications Nova Scotia/Bank of Canada/Flickr)

More honours for Canadian who stood against segregation

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Long before America’s Rosa Parks, there was Canada’s Viola Desmond

Many people know of American Rosa Parks and cite her as the first to stand up for the civil rights of blacks in the U.S.  But Rosa Parks is the American version of Canada’s Viola Desmond who initiated a civil rights case in Canada years earlier, one that has had lasting repercussions.

In 1946 Viola Desmond was a successful black businesswoman in Nova Scotia when she accidently ran up against a segregation policy in a New Glasgow movie house by sitting in the “whites” section of the theatre.

The former Roseland Movie theatre in New Glasgow Nova Scotia, site of a segregation incidentin 1946, years before the Rosa Parks case in the U.S. Viola Desmond’s stand led eventually to repeal of segregation policies.
The former Roseland movie theatre in New Glasgow Nova Scotia, site of a segregation incident in 1946, years before the Rosa Parks case in the U.S. Viola Desmond’s stand led eventually to repeal of segregation policies.

Refusing to move, she was arrested and a legal case was begun. Although she lost, the story caused a long running conversation about segregation resulting in the eventual elimination of various racist policies and laws.

Desmond who died in 1965, was officially “pardoned” by the Nova Scotia government in 2010, and in 2012 a Canadian postage stamp was issued in her honour.

After a long public consultation, Desmond, was also chosen late last year to be the first woman (other than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and other royals) to be prominently featured on a Canadian banknote, the $10 note to be released in 2018.

This week came news of further recognition.

Dec 8/2016 Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau (far right) stands with Viola Desmond’s sister Wanda at a ceremony at the Canadian Museum of History, in Gatineau, Que., announcing the new $10 bank note that will feature Viola’s image
Dec 8/2016: Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau (far right) stands with Viola Desmond’s sister Wanda at a ceremony at the Canadian Museum of History, in Gatineau, Que., announcing the new $10 bank note that will feature Viola’s image © Chris Wattie/Reuters

Theatre and street to re-named in Desmond’s honour

The former Roseland movie theatre in New Glasgow Nova Scotia as shown in 2014. The building is undergoing overhaul to become a multi-use structure and will be renamed the Viola Desmond Building, while the street beside will be renamed Viola Way.
The former Roseland movie theatre in New Glasgow Nova Scotia as shown in 2014. The building is undergoing overhaul to become a multi-use structure and will be renamed the Viola Desmond Building, while the street beside will be renamed Viola Way. © Goolgle streetview.

The old Roseland theatre where the segregation incident in New Glasgow occurred still exists, The new owner however has indicated that once renovations and overhaul of the former theatre are complete towards a new multi-use structure, he will rename it as the Viola Desmond building.  Developer Jamie MacGillivary also indicated that he was seeking artists to, “ to put a portrait of her in a street art form, somewhere on the exterior of the building on a large, dramatic scale”.

In addition, the town itself said it would rename the street beside the theatre in her honour.

The street will soon be known as “Viola Way”.

Additional information- sources

The News: Aug 9/17: Desmond image on wall

CTV: Sep 1/17: developer honours Desmond

RCI: Nov 2016:  Women on banknote

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