Viola Desmond’s $26 fine and court costs have been repaid by Nova Scotia, nearly 75 years after the civil rights pioneer was arrested for refusing to leave the whites only section of a movie theatre.
Desmond’s interest-adjusted fine is estimated at $368.29 but the province topped it up to $1,000 and presented the money to her sister Wanda Robson during a virtual ceremony on Wednesday.
The idea to repay the fine originated from Varishini Deochand, a student from Vaughan, Ont., who asked the province to consider the symbolic reimbursement after learning about Desmond’s story.
“Upon realizing that this fine was not repaid I wrote a letter to the Honourable (Premier) Stephen McNeil addressing something meagre, yet paramount in fostering a more just society,” Deochand said during the event. “I strongly hold that one should not pay a fine for a crime they did not commit.”
Desmond was found guilty of tax evasion after she challenged racial segregation at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow on Nov. 8, 1946. She was given a posthumous apology and pardon by Nova Scotia in 2010.
McNeil thanked Deochand and said her request was “insightful” and “driven by a desire for social justice.”
The premier described Desmond’s story as one of aspiration, activism and determination, adding that she was a trailblazer who continues to influence people. “We must continue to acknowledge and recognize the incredible people of African descent like Viola, who have made a significant contribution to our society,” McNeil said.
He said an official cheque for the original $26 fine will be displayed at the Nova Scotia legislature along with Desmond’s pardon certificate.
Desmond’s act of courage came nearly a decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama.
A resident of Halifax, the beautician and entrepreneur who sold her own line of cosmetics was headed to Sydney, N.S., when her car broke down. Stranded in New Glasgow overnight, Desmond decided to go to the local theatre to watch a movie.
The Roseland Theatre, however, was segregated at that time, with black patrons relegated to the balcony while floor seating was reserved for whites.
The short-sighted Desmond sat in the floor section in order to see properly and when she refused to leave she was dragged from the theatre by police. She was arrested and left in jail for 12 hours before being fined.
Desmond died in 1965 and although her story received little attention for several decades, her stature has grown through a number of tributes in recent years. She has been featured on a stamp, a Halifax harbour ferry is named after her, while a Toronto park and streets in Montreal and New Glasgow bear her name.
In 2017, she was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame and in November 2018, a new $10 bill bearing her likeness was put into circulation. Desmond became the first black person — and the first non-Royal woman — on a regularly circulating Canadian banknote.
Robson said the growing recognition of her sister has been “overwhelming.”
“Particularly the letter to the premier from Varishini,” she said. “She sounds like the future and there will be thousands behind her raising the torch of justice and freedom.”