Do you think one person can’t make a difference? We have $10 that says otherwise. That’s the $10 bill that will feature Viola Desmond (1914-1965), a black woman who chose to sit on the whites-only main floor of a New Glasgow, N.S., movie theatre, instead of in the balcony. She was forcibly removed from the theatre, arrested and kept in jail overnight.
She was not charged with violating a Jim Crow law, but with tax evasion — for depriving the provincial government of its share of the amusement tax that would have accrued from the one-cent difference between the balcony ticket and the main-floor ticket.
She paid a $20 fine, plus $6 in court costs, but decided to sue the theatre. She did not win the lawsuit, but her actions brought attention to the discrimination black people faced in Nova Scotia. She became known as the Rosa Parks of Canada, although her actions took place nine years before the events in Montgomery, Alabama.
Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, and her actions helped launch the civil-rights movement in the U.S.
Civil-rights activists wanted Desmond to take up their cause, but she chose a different path, training young black women to be hairdressers (they were not allowed to train as beauticians in Halifax) and helping them set up their own businesses.
The Nova Scotia government granted Desmond a posthumous “free” pardon in 2010, an action that differs from a simple pardon, in that it acknowledges innocence and that the conviction was based on error.
Other posthumous honours have accrued to Desmond, including her portrait on a postage stamp, a ferry bearing her name and a scholarship in her honour.
She stood up for what was right, instead of surrendering to the belief that one person cannot make a difference.
Victoria historian Merna Forster also believes one person can make a difference. In 2013, she was the one who launched the campaign to have a Canadian woman honoured on the nation’s currency.
One person can indeed make a difference.