Heritage Day 2015: Honouring Viola Desmond

CCRCE News: 
Wednesday, February 11, 2015

February 16, 2015, will mark the first Nova Scotia Heritage Day. Beginning this year, and continuing for many years to come, Nova Scotia Heritage Day will give Nova Scotians an annual opportunity to celebrate different contributions to Nova Scotia's storied past and diverse culture, and learn more about our history in the process.

The first honouree for Nova Scotia Heritage Day is Mrs. Viola Irene Davis Desmond.

Born on July 6, 1914 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to James and Gwendolyn Davis. One of 15 siblings, Viola was a successful entrepreneur who operated her own beauty parlour and college in Halifax.

On November 8, 1946, while travelling to Sydney on a business trip, Viola stopped in New Glasgow when her car broke down. While waiting for her car to be repaired, she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre.

Viola was unaware that, like many other institutions at that time, the theatre had a policy of discrimination. African Nova Scotians weren’t allowed to sit on the theatre’s main level. They had to sit in the balcony where the seating cost ten cents less than the main level. Viola tried to buy a ticket for the lower level, but was turned down.

When Viola sat on the main level and refused to leave, the manager had police remove her from the theatre. After spending a night in jail, she was tried and convicted of defrauding the Province of the one penny in tax difference between a floor seat and balcony seat. She was given the option to pay a fine of $26, or go to jail for 30 days. Due to her business commitments, she chose to pay the fine.

Her courageous stand against institutional racism was an important act in Nova Scotia’s civil rights movement, but it took a toll on her personal life. In the early 1950s, she closed her business and moved to Montreal, Quebec, where she enrolled in Business College. She eventually settled in New York where she passed away at age 50.

On April 15, 2010, the province of Nova Scotia granted an official apology and free pardon to the late Mrs. Viola Desmond, recognizing that the theatre and the courts treated her unfairly in 1946 because of the colour of her skin.

On the advice of the Executive Council, the Lieutenant Governor exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to grant a free pardon. A free pardon is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was in error. A free pardon is an extraordinary remedy and is considered only in the rarest of circumstances.

It is meant to right a wrong. In this case, the free pardon is meant to right the wrong done to Viola Desmond.

Click here to learn more about Ms. Desmond and Nova Scotia Heritage Day.