BHM: Viola Desmond

To celebrate Black History Month 2022, the Next Generation Women Team is spotlighting a few inspirational Black women and their place in our history. Today's post was written by Alyssa Haskell, NGW’s Content Director.


Viola Desmond was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1914. She is best remembered for challenging racial discrimination after she was removed from the all-white section of the Roseland movie theatre and arrested. Though her legal challenge failed, and she was not pardoned in her lifetime, Desmond’s legacy inspired many others to challenge racial discrimination. Desmond was formally pardoned in 2010 and was featured on the $10 bill in 2018.

Beyond her activism, Desmond as a successful entrepreneur. At the time, most beauty products reinforced racist beauty ideals and encouraged women of colour to straighten their hair and whiten their skin, damaging the hair and skin. After learning of other Black women entrepreneurs and beauticians in the United States, Desmond wanted to create hair and skin products for Black women in Canada. These products were far safer for Black women to use and promoted an idea of Black beauty that did not rely on European beauty standards. The Desmond line of beauty products became widely popular in Eastern Canada.

Desmond was a strong community leader and cared deeply about the Black community in Halifax. Growing up as a Black woman during racial segregation, she was deeply aware of the employment barriers that Black women faced. In 1944, she opened the Desmond School of Beauty Culture. Here, Desmond taught young Black women beautician skills, but also mentored them in areas like self-esteem, dignity, job opportunities, and social advancement. Through her entrepreneurship and mentorship, Desmond uplifted other Black women and gave them the tools to succeed in a world rife with racial and gender discrimination.

The Roseland Theatre Incident happened in 1946, shortly after Desmond opened her Beauty School. Despite being arrested and challenged the racial discrimination policy, Desmond continued to work on her thriving business and teach her students. She relocated to New York to expand her business, but passed away suddenly in 1965. Desmond became an inspiration for the Black community in Nova Scotia, with some members founding the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) to continue the fight for racial equality. In 1991, the Nova Scotia Premier passed the Human Rights Act, establishing legal equality for Black Canadians.

Desmond’s legacy is much more than the Roseland Theatre Incident. Viola Desmond was an entrepreneur, activist, feminist, mentor, and community leader.

To learn more about Desmond’s life, activism, and career, check out Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times by Graham Reynolds and Wanda Robson.