The story of Viola Desmond, "Canada's Rosa Parks"

In Canada, the first civilian woman will be on the country’s $10 bill next year.

Her name is Viola Desmond. Never heard of her? Up until a few years ago, neither did many Canadians, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller. But her story is giving context to assumptions on Canada’s history that the nation – free of slavery, free of legal segregation – was not so free of racism. Desmond gave voice to that.

Ninety-year-old Wanda Robson is proud of Desmond, her big sister – proud that by 32, she’d built a thriving hair care and beauty supply business, modeling herself after America’s first female self-made millionaire, Madam C. J. Walker.

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Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond’s sister

CBS News

“She said, ‘That’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be,’” Robson said. “This lady was way before her time.”

She’s even prouder of a decision Desmond made in this theater back in 1946, an event now re-enacted for Canadian television.

On a business trip, waiting for her car to be repaired, Desmond bought a ticket to watch a movie from a seat of her choosing.

“She says, ‘I relaxed. And next thing I know, the ushers tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You can’t sit here.” And she says, ‘Why not?’ She says, ‘You have the wrong ticket. Your ticket is an upstairs ticket.’ Viola said, ‘Well, I’ll just go back and change it for a downstairs ticket,’” Robson said.  

But they wouldn’t let her.

“They dragged her, one took one arm, and that dragged her out. It wasn’t difficult, she was only 95 pounds,” Robson said.
 
Desmond spent the night in jail, was fined 26 Canadian dollars, and was charged with failing to pay a one-cent difference in tax.

It was the only legal way to charge her because while practiced, segregation was not written into Canadian law. Desmond appealed and her case was heard by Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court. But it was dismissed on a technicality. 
     
Desmond’s stand would soon fade into obscurity for many, except for Professor Graham Reynolds.

“I think that that moment of spontaneous courage was just the kind of thing that inspires people,” Reynolds said. 

Reynolds knew all about Desmond’s case. He taught race relations at Cape Breton University. What he didn’t know back in 2000, was that her 73-year-old sister was taking his class.

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Professor Graham Reynolds 

CBS News

As he’s telling a story about Desmond, Robson said, “That’s my sister.”

“I was totally taken of course. I realized that she was a treasure,” Reynolds said.
  
Thus began a partnership to bring Desmond’s story to light, one that traced her roots from Halifax throughout the entire area and ultimately in 10 short years gave Canada a new national hero.

Together, Reynolds and Robson worked to clear Desmond’s name. In 2010 the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia issued her a posthumous free pardon. In the process, Desmond’s status as a civil rights pioneer was re-discovered.

Her name has appeared on a passenger ferry, and her face on a Canadian postage stamp. Then in 2016, 70 years after her solitary act of defiance, Desmond was chosen from a list of hundreds to be the first woman outside of royalty on Canadian currency.

“Why do you think they chose her?” Miller asked Robson.

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“I think they chose her because the timing was right. Because of the fact that she stood up. She stood her ground for what she believed was right,” Robson responded.

Desmond passed away in 1965, while living in relative obscurity in New York City. Often referred to as “Canada’s Rosa Parks,” it’s important to note that her stand came a full nine years before Parks launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the U.S.

As for the United States, a portrait of Harriet Tubman is expected to grace the face of the $20 bill. In the next decade, she will become the first woman featured on paper currency in the U.S. The abolitionist helped free slaves through the Underground Railroad.