LATIN CANADIAN
BUSINESS COUNCIL

Written by Nadine LeBoeuf
As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, it is a time to reflect on the growth and inspiration that came from the unnecessary obstacles of a Black woman living in Canada.
While many slaves in the United States sought freedom in Canada, it goes without saying that they were not free from racism. Many Black Canadians still experience racism and segregation, and from it the struggles to provide for their families and to gain success both financially and socially. This is the history of Viola Desmond, who is no exception to the rule as a Black woman in the first half of the 20th century but who is also inspiring in her actions to seek racial equality and in her entrepreneurial success as a business owner and community supporter.
Viola was the kind of person who would go out in search of possibilities. She grew up in a time where she would constantly be denied admission to beauty schools because they were ‘white-only’. Viola would travel to other provinces and to various states in the United States to obtain the skills she needed to become a beautician. She even attended one of Madam C.J. Walker’s beauty schools in New York City. As a beautician, she opened her own salon called Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture. Once she gained her footing, Viola began to make her own hair and skin products locally that could only previously be found in distant cities. She also opened her own beauty school named The Desmond School of Beauty Culture.This was an immense stepping stone for not only Viola, but other Black women in her community. She empowered other Black women by giving them the training they needed to open their own salons and to thrive as businesswomen. Even her story of overcoming the barriers and obstacles put in her way through white society’s standards and opinions on race are inspiring. Viola knew what she wanted and didn’t stop until she got it.
On November 8th, 1946 while on a business trip her car broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia so she decided to go see a movie while it underwent repairs. When she arrived at the theater she asked for admission to the main floor but was sold a ticket for the balcony since the ticket seller told her she was not permitted to sell tickets for the main floor to ‘‘you people’’ with reference to her race. Viola sat in the main floor seating anyway, but not for long when an usher had asked her to move and when she refused to move, the police were called. She was arrested on the count of tax evasion – the only charge that the police could come up with to arrest her since she had not paid the extra penny in tax that was owed for main floor seating. Tax evasion was obviously not her intent but this was a way to conceal the bigger issue Viola fought to bring to the surface – racism. With the wrongful charge of tax evasion hanging over her, Viola did not stop inspiring and becoming an activist for racial equality and civil rights.

Historically, Viola Desmond is known for taking a stand by ‘taking a seat’. She stood up for what was right not only for herself but for all people of colour. Initially the impact of her resistance to segregation proved to be an action in the right direction and she was seen as an inspiration by her fellow community members. She fought the charges and sought to make changes but her efforts were diminished. In her personal life, standing up to racism had caused a strain on her marriage and she closed her business to study a business program in Montreal and to later move onto New York. It was only recently on April 15th, 2010 that Viola had received a posthumous pardon and the Crown-in-Right of Nova Scotia issued an apology stating she was rightfully resisting racial descrimination. While it took over 60 years to receive a pardon, the work Viola and other fellow Black Canadians have done in their lifetime and continue to do to create equality and push for equal rights is truly what needs to be recognized. Today you will find Viola’s face on the Canadian ten dollar bill and when you ride the ferry between Halifax and Dartmouth, you will see it’s named after her.
There are so many obstacles and limitations we face every day. Most of it stems from our own self-talk, but may come from a preconceived idea from others based on our appearance, ability or who we love. If you have the will to change the way you talk to yourself and the determination to ignore the limiting standards others place on you, there is no stopping you.
It took courage for Viola to fight for civil rights and racial equality. In the end, while the experience took a toll on her personal life and quite possibly her health, she made a difference in our lives regardless of the colour of our skin just because she spoke up. Be courageous, stand up for yourself and make the change you want to see.

Sources:
https://www.vinsider.ca/features/viola-desmond-the-canadian-businesswoman-and-her-influence/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viola_Desmond
https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/res/information-backgrounder/Viola_Desmond
https://novascotia.ca/news/smr/2010-04-15-pardon.asp

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Andrea Welling

Regional Director, BC

CANADA

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Helping entrepreneurs connect with valuable resources in the entrepreneurship community is one of my passions. In addition, I strongly believe in the power of mentorship to support new ventures to be able to build confidence to go to their next level. For existing businesses struggling to scale, mentorship provides another invaluable perspective and a way to broaden the entrepreneur’s skillset.

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