How Viola Desmond made Canadians aware of their “angel complex”

I love Canada. I love the cold, I love the food, I love the friendliness and I once had a male professor who told a student from Canada that, “I’m straight…but your Prime Minister is hot.”

Yes, I love Canada but what is odd to me is that, when I think of the phrase “Canadian history,” the only thing that comes to mind is Bob and Doug Mackenzie attempting a geography lesson. This has less to do with the perception that nothing eventful ever happens in Canada and more to do with the fact that the good ole U. S. of A. is so much more obnoxious with all of our good, bad and ugly.

And it’s not just an American thing. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when the story of Canadian civil rights activist Viola Desmond started to make the rounds, that many Canadians realized there had been extensive racism in their country. On an episode of “The Globe and Mail”’s “Colour Code,” they called it “The Angel Complex.” Essentially, this describes the ignorance many Canadians have about their history because of the “compared to the U.S., we’re angels” mindset. I suppose the U.S. alternative would be: “compared to Canada, we’re jackasses.”

But racism was and is a problem in Canada. It wasn’t quite as engrained in the nation’s history as it is in America, but that almost made it trickier for black citizens to take a stand. The “unofficial” nature to Canadian racism made it more difficult to anticipate limitations or to protest specific institutions or legislations.

Many people call Viola Desmond “The Canadian Rosa Parks” but Viola’s claim to fame happened nearly ten years before Rosa refused to give up her bus seat.

But let’s back up a little bit first.

Viola Irene Davis was born on July 6, 1914 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her father was a well-established barber and her mother was the daughter of a white minister from Connecticut. They both were hardworking, dedicated individuals who participated in the community, which inspired Viola to become a successful businesswoman.

Image Credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia

She studied at one of the few schools in Canada that accepted black students, the Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal. After taking a couple more courses and seminars in Atlantic City and New York, she opened “Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture” in Halifax. Around this time, she heard about Madam C. J. Walker, who became the first female self-made millionaire in the United States, and was instantly inspired.

Beauty parlors quickly became a beacon of opportunity for many women, particularly black women, to become entrepreneurs as new beauty and fashion trends began to demand increasing amounts of styling and maintenance.

After Viola discovered success with her studio, she created The Desmond School of Beauty Culture, hoping to support young black women find employment and empowerment. She also created a line of beauty products “especially blended for dark complexions.” The products were sold at the studios and parlors of her graduates.

Image Credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia

On November 8, 1946, Viola was driving home from a business meeting in Sydney, Nova Scotia when her car broke down and she was forced to stop and ask for a repair in New Glasgow. The repair was going to take several hours and night was fast approaching so Viola checked into a hotel room for the night and figured she might as well catch a movie to kill the time.

Viola walked into the Roseland Theatre, bought a ticket for the main floor and took a seat. When an usher quickly told her that she couldn’t sit there, that she would have to move to the balcony like her ticket indicated, she realized she had been given an upstairs ticket.

Viola was nearsighted and figured there must have been a mistake so she returned to the ticketing booth to procure the right ticket, offering to pay the one cent difference in between an upstairs and downstairs seat.

“I’m sorry,” the cashier said, “but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.”

Viola recognized that the supposed issue was her skin color and thought that was a silly reason to keep her from sitting where she wanted to sit. So Viola took a seat on the main floor anyway.

Pretty soon, the theatre’s manager, Henry MacNeil, approached Viola and said that the theatre had the right to “refuse admission to any objectionable person.” Viola politely said that she had received admission, holding up her ticket as proof, and that it was only when she had offered to pay the difference in price that she had been refused.

The manager asked her to leave but Viola stayed put. He called the police who pulled the 95-pound Viola out of her seat and dragged her out of the theatre by one arm, causing her to lose her purse and a shoe, in addition to injuring her knee and hip.

Image Credit: Radio Canada International

She was arrested and held in a jail cell overnight on charges of tax evasion, referring to the one cent that she had been completely willing to pay. It was a ridiculous charge but Canada had no legal segregation policy to justify arresting Viola. Racial segregation was practiced in many of the same public places as the States, but it wasn’t lawfully enforced. This is where that “unofficial” racism could prove tricky.

Viola went to court the next morning where she was fined twenty dollars and made to pay an addition six dollars to the theatre’s manager who was listed in the proceedings as a prosecutor. Viola was never given legal counsel or told that she had the right to any. The issue of race was never mentioned.

Many in the community rallied to support her. The newly-formed Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured (not a typo because it’s Canada, eh) People attempted to raise a legal challenge but the Supreme Court refused to overturn the conviction.

Carrie Best, who founded Nova Scotia’s second black-owned and operated newspaper, had experienced a similar ordeal at the Roseland Theatre and had unsuccessfully filed a civil suit. But after Viola’s experience five years later, she made sure her newspaper closely covered the trial, often featuring updates on the front page. 

Image Credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia

The fight for justice on Viola’s behalf snowballed into an overall fight for change, culminating in Nova Scotia’s passage of the Fair Accommodations Act in 1959, which outlawed racial discrimination. This prompted several other providences to enact similar legislation.

As for Viola, her marriage suffered, partly because of differing viewpoints about her trial, and she abandoned both her husband and business to move to Montreal. She died in 1965 in New York City.

It wasn’t until decades later that people began to hear about her story. In 2003, Viola’s sister, Wanda Robson, 73 at the time, enrolled in a race relations course at Cape Breton University. Viola’s experience was part of the curriculum which prompted Wanda to seek the help of the professor, Graham Reynolds, to share her sister’s story.

Viola was granted a free pardon by Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis on April 15, 2010 which recognized the injustice of the conviction.

In 2012, a stamp featuring Viola was issued by Canada Post and, in 2016, “Heritage Minute” released a feature about her during Black History Month, expanding awareness of her story and legacy. In 2017, she was inducted to Canada’s Walk of Fame.

The Bank of Canada asked the public for suggestions for the first Canadian woman to appear on a banknote on March 8, 2016. Nine months later, Viola was selected to grace the ten dollar note to be released later this year, replacing Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald.

This move was big part of the efforts by current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to promote gender equality, which proves he’s got a lot going for him in addition to his looks, Professor.

It obviously doesn’t solve everything but it’s a first step in acknowledging a problematic past by doing something to encourage a brighter future. So the new Viola Desmond 10-note is just the latest reason I am ready to cozy my noggin in a toque and my torso in a turtleneck and find out what the hell back-bacon truly is.

Image Credit: OZY