by Tim Harper
She died young and alone, never knowing justice.
That would come posthumously, 63 years after a simple gesture of defiance and courage helped change
this country. Yet her story remains little known.
For that singular act of bravery in a Nova Scotia movie theatre in 1946, I would put Viola Desmond on
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in announcing last week that a Canadian woman will be honoured on our
bank notes, spoke of strong women who have made history against all odds. He mentioned their fight to
win the vote, their fight for personhood and their fight for reproductive rights.
Desmond changed racial segregation laws in Nova Scotia and she did it years before Rosa Parks refused
to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama. Those who have called her “Canadaís Rosa Parks” have their
history backward and demean Desmond. Rosa Parks was really the American Viola Desmond.
Desmond ran a beauty school in Halifax, having taken her own training in Montreal and the U.S. because
she was denied entry into a local beauty school because she was black.
She drew other black students from Quebec and other Maritime provinces and built a flourishing
One day in 1946, she hit the road to deliver her beauty products, hopping in her car for a 16- kilometre
trip to New Glasgow.
Once there, she ran into car trouble and was told that her car needed a part that would have to come in
from Halifax. With time on her hands, she decided to take in a movie at the local Roseland Theatre.
The Roseland was a segregated theatre. Desmond may or may not have known that. Historians arenít
She merely wanted to sit downstairs because she had vision problems and would see the movie better
from that vantage point.
When the manager and the ticket agent told her blacks had to sit in the balcony, Desmond refused to
move from her downstairs seat.
“I then told Mr. MacNeil (the theatre manager) that . . . I had tried to purchase a downstairs ticket but
had been refused and I asked Mr. MacNeil to obtain a downstairs ticket for me,íí she said in a police
affidavit. “He became angry and said that he would have me thrown out.”
Police arrived and physically dragged her from the theatre, injuring her in the process. She was thrown
in jail overnight, given the choice of paying a $20 fine or spending 30 days in jail.
Ultimately, she was convicted of defrauding the province of one penny of its amusement tax, the
difference in price between sitting downstairs and upstairs.
“She sized up the situation in New Glasgow and she had the courage to say, ëthis isnít going to happen,í
” says her biographer, Cape Breton University history professor Graham Reynolds, author of Viola
Desmondís Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land.
She lost an appeal on a technicality, but the publicity sparked by her case ultimately led to the scrapping
of segregation laws, the implementation of the fair accommodation act and the human rights act in the
In Viola Desmondís Halifax of 1946 she would not have been served in a downtown restaurant. She
would not have been allowed to book a hotel room downtown.
Reynolds says Desmond is really a symbol of an entire generation in Canadian history and maintains
those that challenged racism in this country are not properly honoured.
The incident took its toll on Desmond. She divorced, closed her business, moved to Montreal and
ultimately New York where she died in 1965 at the age of 50.
In 2009, Desmondís youngest sister, Wanda Robson, wrote to the mayor of New Glasgow, asking the
1946 injustice be formally acknowledged. That letter ultimately led to a provincial pardon granted
Desmond in 2010 in an elaborate ceremony.
Since then, Nova Scotia named its first Family Day holiday Viola Desmond Day and the government
ensured her grave is marked in Halifax. A portrait of Desmond hangs on the wall of the Nova Scotia
Her next honour should be her face on a Canadian bill.
There is no shortage of women who would fit the Trudeau criteria, but few who could represent the
quiet Canadian determination embodied in Desmond or symbolize the troubled road to diversity and
accommodation in this country. Letís salute the woman who wouldnít move upstairs.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services