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A heroine for human rights in Canada

Meet the incomparable Viola Desmond.

As Black History Month begins for 2019, a new coin honours Viola Desmond (1914-1965), a black Canadian born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who played a pivotal role in the struggle for human rights in the 1940s.

On November 8, 1946 police forcibly removed Viola from a movie theatre when she refused to leave her seat in the whites-only section. She was arrested, fined $26 (≈$300 today), and spent a night in jail.  

Long before this incident, Viola had already experienced the harsh realities of racial injustice. She lived in a time when beauty schools and shops were often segregated and almost all women encountered obstacles when pursuing their professional dreams. Yet Viola never gave up.  She became a successful black businesswoman with her own beauty school, salon and line of personal care products.

Viola spoke out against her arrest and conviction. Her challenge inspired the people of North End Halifax to unite and take the case to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in what is widely regarded to be the first legal challenge to racial segregation in Canada.  While the verdict was upheld, the legal argument shone a bright light on racism in Canada. The pleas for justice continued through the years, and on April 15, 2010 the province of Nova Scotia granted Viola an official posthumous apology and free pardon.

While Viola’s story highlights the power of a single individual, Black History Month celebrates the combined impact of all black voices that have spoken out against racism and oppression throughout history.

Visitors to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg (Manitoba) often say they did not know about Viola Desmond before seeing the exhibit about her story. This beautiful pure silver coin will inspire pride as it continues to celebrate and build awareness of her legacy. Its design features Viola’s portrait with the signature that she would have proudly penned on the certificates of her school. By honouring this courageous woman during Black History Month, this must-have limited keepsake recognizes the black community as an intrinsic part of Canada’s past, present and future—a nation that shines as a beacon for human rights, yet recognizes there is still much work to do on this exciting journey of humanity.

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