Viola Desmond Bursary inspires alumnus to give back

Alumnus Tom O’Handley BComm’02 MBA’15, with vertical $10 bill honouring Viola Desmond.

Alumnus Tom O’Handley BComm’02 MBA’15, with vertical $10 bill honouring Viola Desmond.

Alumnus Tom O’Handley was moved by the story of Viola Desmond, and inspired after seeing her featured on the new Canadian ten dollar bill which came into circulation.

‘I love that Viola Desmond is the first Canadian-born woman to be solely represented on our national currency,” says Tom. “One of the many things I love about the new bill is the map of North-End Halifax printed on it. This map got me thinking about this incredible community and how I could honor her legacy,”

He began donating his new ten dollar bills to charities and not-for-profits in the North End, in Viola’s honour.

When Saint Mary’s announced the new Viola Desmond Bursary in November 2018, Tom was inspired again.

“I’m extremely proud of Saint Mary’s University for offering a bursary commemorating Viola Desmond. As a SMU alumni, I have always loved the sense of community on campus. Once I found out that the bursary will help African-Nova Scotian students on their path to success, I decided to not only increase my monthly giving to Saint Mary’s but to also re-direct it to support this bursary.”

Tom’s contributions will go to a fund which supports bursaries of $1,946 to current African-Nova Scotian students studying full-time. The amount of the bursary commemorates the year of Viola’s arrest. The bursary was created with permission of the Desmond family and will give preference to a female student studying business or entrepreneurship.

“Viola Desmond’s legacy taught us that the only time we should look down on someone is when we are helping them up. The need is great as there are many worthy organizations in the North End that are looking for more support so if you like this idea, please join me in this cause.” Tom currently works as Development Officer for Easter Seals Nova Scotia and is a member of the SMU Alumni Council.

 To make a contribution to the Viola Desmond Bursary visit

A young Viola Desmond.

A young Viola Desmond.

Viola Desmond was a black Halifax woman who became an important figure in the Canadian civil rights movement.

A trailblazing entrepreneur, she opened the Desmond School of Beauty Culture in Halifax’s North End, which offered space for black students to learn hair and skincare, and carried a line of cosmetics.

In November 1946, while visiting New Glasgow, NS, Viola attended the segregated Roseland Theatre to see a movie. When she was denied a floor ticket (where white patrons sat), Viola purchased a seat for the balcony but sat on the floor to better see the screen. Soon after, she was arrested, held in jail, and convicted of tax evasion for the one cent difference in the price of the movie ticket.

The charge was largely protested by Nova Scotia’s black community, and was officially pardoned by the Government of Nova Scotia and Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis in 2010. Viola Davis died in 1965.