One Woman's Resistance
How far would you go to fight for your rights?
Viola Desmond's Story
In November 1946, hair salon owner Viola Desmond went to a film at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. But what began as a night at the movies became a night in prison.
Unaware that the theatre was segregated, the Black Nova Scotian chose a main-floor seat. When she refused to move to the balcony, where Black patrons were expected to sit, she was arrested and dragged out of the theatre.
For many people, the story would have ended there - but Desmond refused to accept the charges against her, and her case went all the way to Nova Scotia's Supreme Court.
Viola Desmond, around 1940. She trained as a hairdresser and beautician in Montréal and the United States. Beauty schools in her home city of Halifax did not accept Black students. Viola went on to become a successful entrepreneur who operated a school as well as her own salon. Photo: Courtesy of Emily Clyke
"She went back and she said, 'I'd like a main floor ticket please.' And the white ticket seller said to her, 'we don't sell tickets to you people.'"
- Constance Backhouse, Professor and Legal Scholar
Segregation in Canada
Segregation is the enforced separation of racial groups. In Canada, there were no official laws enforcing separation of Black and white Canadians. Instead, businesses such as shops, theatres and restaurants made their own unofficial rules. That is exactly what happened at the Roseland Theatre.
Roseland Theatre. Photo: Courtesy of The Halifax Herald Limited
While Desmond was removed from the theatre for sitting in a "whites-only" section, that is not what officials charged her with. Instead, she was charged with tax evasion for failing to pay the full tax on the more expensive main-floor movie ticket - a difference that amounted to one cent. Existing laws were used to punish her for breaking the unwritten rules of segregation.
"The racism in the United States was truly in your face. In Canada, the racism was very polite - sort of undercover."
- The Honourable Mayann Francis, Former Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia
By refusing to change seats and by fighting her conviction in court, Viola Desmond directly challenged segregation in Canada.
Even though she lost her appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, her stand galvanized Nova Scotia's Black community and helped inspire Canada's civil rights movement. Unfortunately, the personal cost for Desmond was very high. Her marriage ended and she ultimately decided to abandon her business in Nova Scotia and move to Montréal. She passed away in 1965 in New York City.
"Every time I spoke about Viola, the full meaning of what she had done, her act, really hit me."
- Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond
A Canadian civil rights legacy
For many years, Viola Desmond and her story were unknown to the vast majority of Canadians. That is now beginning to change. Desmond has appeared on a postage stamp. She's had her own Heritage Minute and there is even a ferryboat in Halifax, Nova Scotia named in her honour. In 2010, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia posthumously pardoned Desmond, removing the conviction from the historical record. Most recently, Viola Desmond will become the first Canadian woman to be featured on a regularly-circulating Canadian bank note. The new $10 bill will begin circulating in late 2018. On the reverse side of the bill is an image of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, emphasizing Desmond’s contribution to the struggle for rights in Canada.
Photo: Bank of Canada
Desmond's sister Wanda Robson still lives in Nova Scotia. She has been inspired by her sister's story. At 73, she went back to school, finished her Bachelor of Arts degree, and now speaks to youth about Viola Desmond and combating racism. Robson also experienced the effects of segregation as a child. She knows that if we are to end racism and discrimination, we all need to take a stand, just as her sister did.
Setting the Record Straight. Mayann Francis, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia (left), speaking with Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond's sister, after the pardon ceremony, 2010.
"Change is gonna come. We have to be patient. Never give up. Never give up."
- Wanda Robson
One Woman’s Resistance is currently on display in the Canadian Journeys gallery on Level 2.