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One woman's resistance Viola Desmond's Story

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Photo: Courtesy of Joe and Wanda Robson

Story details

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.

A woman ahead of her time

Viola Desmond was born in 1914 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. As a young woman, she dreamed of opening a beauty salon, but discovered that Nova Scotia beauty schools did not accept Black students. Instead of giving up her dream, Desmond trained as a hairdresser and beautician in Montréal and the United States. She went on to become a successful entrepreneur in Nova Scotia, operating a beauty school as well as her own salon.

Slideshow

  • Viola Desmond with the 1947 graduating class from the Desmond School of Beauty Culture.

    Photo: Courtesy of Joe and Wanda Robson
  • Viola Desmond with Reverend Captain William P. Oliver and the 1945 graduating class from the Desmond School of Beauty Culture. This was Desmond’s first graduating class, and Oliver was the speaker for the occasion.

    Photo: Courtesy of Joe and Wanda Robson

Ahead of her time in recognizing an underserved market, Desmond created a line of cosmetics for people with darker complexions. Despite her many accomplishments, Desmond still had to contend with the racist practice of segregation.

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. However, communities and businesses such as shops, theatres and restaurants made their own unofficial rules.

Roseland Theatre.

Photo: Courtesy of The Halifax Herald Limited

When Desmond was removed from the Roseland Theatre for sitting in a whites-only section, existing laws were used to sanction her for breaking the unwritten rules of segregation. Desmond was charged with tax evasion for failing to pay the full tax on a main-floor movie ticket – a difference that amounted to only one cent.

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

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

By refusing to change seats and by fighting her conviction in court, Viola Desmond directly challenged segregation in Canada. She was not the first Black woman in Canada to push back against racism. Carrie M. Best, the founder and editor of The Clarion, the first Black-owned newspaper in Nova Scotia, had already written about the injustice of segregation. In 1941, she and her son were removed from the same theatre as Desmond, also for sitting in the whites-only section. As Desmond learned five years later, Best’s challenge did not end the Roseland Theatre’s policy of segregation.

Desmond recognized that what had happened to her was an injustice, and she realized she had the power to speak out against it. After speaking to family and friends and realizing she had their support, Desmond decided to appeal her conviction, and it was eventually brought before the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. Even though she ultimately lost her appeal, her stand against injustice galvanized Nova Scotia’s Black community and helped inspire Canada’s civil rights movement. Unfortunately, the personal cost for Desmond was high. Her marriage ended and she abandoned her business in Nova Scotia, moving to Montréal. She passed away in 1965 in New York City.

A Canadian Civil Rights Legacy

Photo: Bank of Canada

The justness of Desmond’s cause was officially recognized in 2010, when the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia posthumously pardoned her, removing her conviction from the historical record. Desmond’s story, long unknown to most Canadians, is now becoming more familiar. In 2018, she became the first Canadian woman featured on a regularly circulating Canadian $10 bill. Desmond has also appeared on a Canadian postage stamp. She’s had her own Heritage Minute and there is even a ferryboat in Halifax, Nova Scotia named in her honour.

Desmond’s sister Wanda Robson still lives in Nova Scotia. Like many Canadians, 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 her sister’s story and combating racism. Robson knows if we are to end racism and discrimination, we all need to take a stand, just as Viola Desmond did.

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.

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

Photo: Tomlinson Kannibalimo April, 4, 1912
Photo: Communications Nova Scotia, photograph by Shirley Robb

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.

Photo: Communications Nova Scotia, photograph by Shirley Robb

Change is gonna come. We have to be patient. Never give up. Never give up.

Wanda Robson

Photo: Courtesy of Joe and Wanda Robson

We invited people across Canada to take a seat for Viola Desmond.

Video:

You can visit the One Woman’s Resistance exhibit in the Canadian Journeys gallery on Level 2.

See more at the museum