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Viola Desmond Awards and Bursary

As part of the Black History Awareness series at Ryerson, the Viola Desmond Awards and Bursary showcase talent from students, staff and faculty while raising awareness of the diverse and little-known stories and contributions of past and present Women of African descent in the building of Canada. The awards and bursary are celebrated annually at the Viola Desmond Day Awards Celebration.

Who was Viola Desmond?

Viola Davis Desmond (1914 –1965) was an African-Nova Scotian involved in one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Nova Scotian and Canadian history.

On November 8, 1946, Desmond refused to sit in the balcony designated for blacks in the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Instead, she took her seat on the ground floor where only white people were allowed to sit. After being forcibly removed and arrested, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one-cent tax difference between the balcony and ground floor. She was fined $20 (equivalent to about $260 in 2015) and court costs ($6). She paid the fine but decided to fight the charge in court.

During the trial and following appeals, no one admitted that the theatre maintained a racist seating policy. All efforts to overturn the conviction at higher levels of court failed. After her lawyer returned her fee, she used it to set up a fund that supported activities at the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP). Although it happened over 70 years ago, Desmond’s case continues to gain notoriety, as one of the many cases that fought for the recognition of civil rights in the mid-20th century.

On April 14, 2010, then Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Mayann Francis, who was the first Black Nova Scotian and only the second Black person in Canada to hold this office, on the advice of her premier, invoked the Royal Prerogative. This granted Desmond a posthumous pardon, the first of its kind to be granted in Canada. The free pardon came with an apology from Darrell Dexter, then the Premier of Nova Scotia, which stated that the charges should never have been laid and that Viola Desmond’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice. In addition, Canada Post issued a Viola Desmond Stamp in 2012 to commemorate her story and 2015 was known as the year of Viola Desmond in Nova Scotia. In July 2016, the Halifax Port Authority selected Viola Desmond as the name for its newest ferry.

In December 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Viola Desmond would be the new face of the $10 Bank note (expected to be in circulation in 2018). Viola Desmond is now permanently etched in Canadian history helping everyone to discover who were, and who are, these accomplished Black women of Canada!

What Viola Desmond means to me

In a February 2017 Ryerson Works article, Darrell Bowden, manager, education and awareness, Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion shares what Viola Desmond means to him.