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The day Viola Desmond took a seat

Black women who are TMU students may apply for the Viola Desmond student bursary by Nov. 30
By: Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore
November 07, 2023
An illustration of Black women sitting in a theatre.

Applications for the Viola Desmond student bursary are open until the end of November.

On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond made a decision at the Roseland Theatre, in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, sparking change that would be felt across North America for generations to come. Desmond, a successful Black business woman, was working out of town when her car broke down. As she waited for repairs, she decided to catch a movie. Desmond purchased a movie ticket and grabbed a seat on the main floor like many other movie-goers. When informed that the ground floor was assigned to white patrons, Desmond stayed in her seat, refusing to move. In response, she was arrested, charged with tax evasion and held in jail overnight. 

In Canada, anti-Black racism has long been codified into formal and informal policies and practices. At the time, the police could not lawfully arrest Viola Desmond simply for going to the movies as a Black woman. However, they could arrest her for “evading” the tax with respect to the difference in ticket prices between the main floor seat she was denied and the balcony seating that Black patrons were directed to. 

Viola Desmond's act of resistance against segregation launched a national discussion and mobilized support for Canada’s civil rights movement. Her advocacy, alongside the efforts of other changemaking Black women like Carrie Best and Lena O’Ree, led to some of Canada’s first anti-discrimination laws and paved the way for the many valiant Black women who have continued to fight for change.

For many years, Viola Desmond's story went untold. In fact, although her bravery at the Roseland Theatre took place nearly 10 years before Rosa Parks’ act of defiance in Montgomery, Alabama, most Canadians knew only of the trailblazer from the United States. 

It was only in 2010, through the tireless efforts of her family and community advocates, that Viola Desmond received a posthumous apology and pardon. Years later, in 2016, she would be featured on the new design of the Canadian $10 bill. 

While it’s encouraging that an increasing number of Canadians today are familiar with Viola Desmond’s impact and legacy, it is equally disheartening to think that it took 70 years to credit and celebrate this incredible Black woman whose efforts, expertise and advocacy have made our communities better. 

15 years of the Viola Desmond Awards and Bursary Ceremony at TMU

Fifteen years ago, the Viola Desmond Awards and Bursary were established by the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion (OVPECI) in recognition of Viola Desmond’s legacy of resistance. A School of Social Work student approached Darrell Bowden, former executive director, OVPECI, and contemplated how Desmond’s legacy of resistance and resilience could be more widely honoured. This inquiry led to the creation of the Viola Desmond Awards which have served as an annual celebration of the incredible Black women who are making a difference in the TMU community and beyond. 

The annual Viola Desmond Awards and Bursary Program celebrates the outstanding achievements of Black women who in their roles as students, staff, faculty and alumni, demonstrate that they are positive role models and advocates of the Black/African-Canadian community. Over the years, the Awards have recognized a powerful list of Black women across generations for their self-determination, resistance, leadership, joy and emerging legacies. 

Two women hold hands and pose for a photo

Shurla Charles-Forbes presents the Viola Desmond Faculty Award to Rai Reece at the 15th annual awards celebration.

The ceremony will now be held in November

Over the past 15 years, the Viola Desmond Awards have been a powerful way for the community to pay tribute to Black women and their contributions.

This year, the OVPECI made the decision to move the annual awards ceremony from March to November. Paying tribute to the day that Viola Desmond was arrested for her advocacy, the 16th annual Viola Desmond Awards and Bursary will be held in November 2024. 

Viola Desmond Student Bursary open until end of the month

Additionally, the Viola Desmond Student Bursary is currently open. Black women enrolled as students at TMU in clear academic standing and with a demonstrated commitment to community engagement are encouraged to apply through Awards Spring (external link)  by November 30, 2023. 

Over the years, the OVPECI has celebrated hundreds of phenomenal and deserving Black women, past and present. As we await the next Awards ceremony in fall 2024, as well as those that will follow, we look forward to celebrating hundreds more. 

For more information about the Viola Desmond Awards and Bursary program visit the website or email your questions to

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