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.
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.
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
Photo: Tomlinson Kannibalimo April, 4, 1912
A Canadian Civil Rights Legacy
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.
Change is gonna come. We have to be patient. Never give up. Never give up.
Today I watched the live unveiling of Canada’s new $10 bill prominently displaying its first ever black Canadian woman and trailblazer, Viola Desmond.
I was emotional, humbled and I teared up as her story was told and as her sister Wanda shared how proud she was. Wanda is … t.co/7RZYUIYowH
Students explore pivotal moments, people and changes in Canada’s human rights history to modern day. This program brings to light the democratic ideals, rights, freedoms and responsibilities of Canadians.
Learn about the struggles of labour rights, women’s rights, racial equality, Indigenous rights, linguistic rights and the rights of newcomers in Canada in the 1900s to present.
Experience several thematic exhibits and a film about the human rights journey throughout Canada’s history shown on the super large screen in What Are Human Rights? on Level 2.
Participate in an engaging discovery activity with objects to enhance their tour experience in Canadian Journeys on Level 2.
Discuss what it means to be Canadian, what our history teaches us, and how there are multiple perspectives on human rights issues in Protecting Rights in Canada on Level 3.