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Canadian civil rights trailblazers Fighting for justice at the theatre

By Jason Permanand

 A black and white photo of a movie theatre audience. The picture is taken from the front of the theatre looking towards the back, so the faces of the audience can be seen. Potted palm trees line the walls on each side.

Photo: Hannibal Free Public Library, Steve Chou Tomlinson

Story details

Across the country, Canadians are discovering the story of Viola Desmond, the Black Nova Scotia businesswoman featured on Canada’s new $10 bill. In 1946, Desmond was asked to leave the whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre, but she refused to move. She was arrested and jailed, but her stand against racial segregation has inspired many others in the fight for equality. For her courage and tenacity, we remember Desmond as a Canadian civil rights pioneer. But did you know she was not the first Black Canadian who fought against segregated theatres?

Although Canada does not have a history of official laws that enforced segregation of Black and white Canadians, for years Black people have had to overcome unwritten policies of racial segregation at places like restaurants, parks, pools and local cinemas or theatres. We would like to introduce you to three other civil rights trailblazers who fought racial segregation in Canadian theatres, stretching all the way back to 1914. We’ll start with a woman who would become a strong ally of Desmond’s, Carrie M. Best.

Carrie M. Best

Carrie M. Best grew up in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, where she and her two brothers were encouraged by their parents to study the history of Black Canadians and to be proud of their heritage. Best took her parent’s message to heart.

In 1941, a group of high school girls were removed by force from the Roseland Theatre – the same theatre from which Viola Desmond would be forcibly removed five years later. Their offense? Sitting in the whites-only section. When Best heard about the incident, she was outraged.

Best wrote a letter to the Roseland Theatre’s owner arguing against the racist policy. She wrote that all Canadians should have the same rights, regardless of race. In the letter, Best said she would come to the theatre in person to buy a ticket, and if denied, she would use every avenue possible to publicize the theatre’s racist policy.

I respectfully request you, Sir, to instruct your employees to sell me the ticket I wish when next I come to the theatre or I shall make public every statement made to me by you and your help.

Carrie M. Best

A few days later, Best and her son Cal tried to purchase tickets for the theatre’s main floor. The cashier gave them tickets for the balcony where Black patrons were asked to sit. Best and her son left the tickets on the counter and defiantly walked into the main floor of the theatre. The assistant manager told them they had to leave, but the Bests refused. A police officer removed them by force, and they were convicted and fined for disturbing the peace.

Best took legal action against the theatre. Unfortunately, as was the case with Desmond, Best lost her case. But, in the process, she helped to highlight injustice in her community. And once the case was settled, her fight was not nearly over. She decided that the racist practice of segregation could be defeated another way.

Carrie M. Best, founder and editor of The Clarion, the first Black-owned newspaper in Nova Scotia. .

In 1946, Best founded The Clarion, the province's first Black-owned and published newspaper. Best later used The Clarion to publicize Desmond’s fight against racial segregation, often putting Desmond’s story on the front page.

In 1968, Best was hired by the Pictou Advocate to write a weekly column named “Human Rights,” which ran for seven years. In her column, Best wrote about Indigenous rights, living conditions on reserves and basic civil rights for all.

Decades before Best and Desmond took their stands, two other Black Canadians faced the challenges of segregated theatres head on. Their stories were recently rediscovered through research conducted by Bashir Mohamed from Edmonton, Alberta.

Lulu Anderson

Lulu Anderson stood up for racial justice in Edmonton, Alberta in 1922. It was a time when racial violence was commonplace. Alberta theatres often presented minstrel shows performed by white people in make-up or “blackface” that ridiculed people of African descent. In 1920, a minstrel parade was even held in downtown Edmonton.

On May 12, 1922, Anderson tried to buy a ticket to The Lion and the Mouse at the Metropolitan Theatre. She had been to the Edmonton theatre many times before with friends. But this time, she was denied entry because of her race.

The Metropolitan Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, 1921.

Photo: Glenbow Archives NC-6–8019

Anderson decided she would sue the theatre. The case went to court, but the judge ruled against Anderson, stating in his ruling that “management could refuse admission to anyone upon the refunding the price of the ticket.”

Unfortunately, we know very little about Anderson or her life after the court case. We know that she was an active member of her church choir, but there are no known photographs of her. The records of her court case no longer exist. In 1971, all case files deemed not historically important for the period 1921 to 1949 were destroyed by government. But of course, her case is important, and marks her as one of Canada’s earliest civil rights pioneers, publicly fighting against the unjust policies of her local theatre.

Charles Daniels

In 1914 – eight years prior to Lulu Anderson’s case and in the very year Viola Desmond was born – Charles Daniels was similarly denied entry into a Calgary theatre because of his race. Where Daniels’ case differs from the others is that he won his lawsuit.

Daniels worked for the Canadian Pacific Railroad assisting passengers as a train porter, one of the few positions that Black Canadians could attain at the time.

Daniels enjoyed theatre, and on February 3, 1914, he arranged to buy two main floor tickets to see Shakespeare’s King Lear with a friend at the Sherman Grand Theatre that evening.

The Sherman Grand Theatre in Calgary, Alberta, 1944.

Photo: Glenbow Archives PA-3463–11

That night, Daniels was denied entry onto the main floor and was told he could exchange his ticket for one in the “coloured” section in the balcony, closely mirroring what would happen to Viola Desmond 32 years later on the opposite side of the country.

Daniels refused to sit in the balcony, and soon after launched a court case against the theatre, arguing that since he was sober and well behaved, he was entitled to sit anywhere in the theatre, regardless of creed or colour. He requested $1,000 in damages, or the equivalent of about $20,000 today, and highlighted the embarrassment he suffered that evening: “Because there were a number of men in the Department of C.P.R. (Canadian Pacific Railway) seen me in the lobby at the time, conductors and their crews.”

What Daniels did was risky, and exceptional for the time. It was decades before the peak of the civil rights movement, and generated headlines across Alberta. The Bassano News ran the headline “CALGARY ‘N***’ KICKS UP FUSS – Wants to Attend Theatre With ‘White Folks’ But Management Says No.”

When Daniels’ lawyer asked why a Black person might be denied entry to the theatre, William Sherman, the proprietor of the theatre said, “I might as well tell it. Regarding the coloured people, our audience objects very much – and I like their money as well as anyone else’s, and it is not for that I object, but the audience complains.”

Sherman’s words highlight the fact that while there were no laws openly mandating segregation, it was still practiced – just more covertly.

This is the first one we know where we have offended because we try without saying anything, we try to keep them apart without saying anything…and not telling them the white people do not want them down there.

William Sherman, proprietor, Sherman Grand Theatre

On the day of the hearing, nobody representing the theatre came to court. Daniels won his case by default, and it was widely reported by Alberta newspapers. There was also fallout at the theatre, as Sherman was replaced a few months later.

Just like Lulu Anderson, Daniels’ later life is a mostly a mystery, and there are no known photographs of him. But his story is an important reminder that Black Canadians have been taking a stand for equality and advancing civil rights in Canada for a very long time.

Preserving history

Viola Desmond's story is a part of Canadian history that many Canadians were unfamiliar with until more recent times. We know her name today thanks to dedicated individuals who knew that her story should be remembered and shared. Although many years passed, people didn’t forget her courage. After Desmond’s death, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Mayann Francis pardoned her, removing her conviction from the historical record. Now that her image is on the $10 bill, we carry her story in our pockets, helping to ensure Canadians know about how she resisted segregation.

Throughout our history, many Black Canadians have stood up against segregation and discrimination. They have played a significant role in shaping our country, and through their actions, they have inspired many others to take action against injustice. And that is why their stories – like those of Viola Desmond, Carrie M. Best, Lulu Anderson and Charles Daniels – need to be preserved, taught and acted upon as we continue to work toward equality and fairness for all people.

Reflective questions:

Where do I see injustice?

How can I take a stand for human rights?

Who is a human rights defender in my community?