by Melissa Warden Black, Orientation and Transitions Coordinator, University of Manitoba
She got in her car and started driving. She had a long drive ahead to get to Sydney for her business meeting, and she wanted to be able to get there early and settle in so she’d be well-rested after the lengthy drive. Making a positive first impression was important to her. She’d worked hard to build her business, and this meeting could provide some great prospects.
While still a few hours away from the city, she began to hear a strange sound coming from under the hood of her car. She quickly debated continuing on, but knew she should to stop to get it looked at. This meeting was important, but not worth her safety. And then, just like that, the car began to slow, losing power, as she eased it on over to the side of the road to get out of the way of traffic.
Unfamiliar with New Glasgow, she was relieved to quickly find someone to assist her. Not too long after, a tow truck arrived with a friendly gentleman to take her and her car to a garage to have it checked out. After pulling in to the parking lot, she got out of the truck and noticed a mechanic who stepped out from behind a car he was working on to look at her. She raised her hand slightly to catch his attention when the tow truck driver spoke up.
“This lady here had her car break down a few blocks away. I got a call to go pick her up.”
“Alright, I can take a look.”
She handed over the keys and stepped inside to the waiting area to sit down. A while later, the mechanic walked through the door from the garage.
“Looks like it’s gonna take a few hours to get the car up and running. May not be til the morning. You’ll probably want to head home and wait.”
“Oh. I’m actually just passing through on my way to Sydney for a meeting. Is there a hotel nearby?” she asked.
“Best try the one a couple blocks over. To the west.”
She thanked the mechanic and watched him walk back towards the door, open it, and head into the garage before she herself walked back out through the front door, took her suitcase from her back seat, and turned towards the direction of the hotel.
After checking in to the hotel, she asked the clerk if there was a movie theatre nearby, thinking it might be a nice way to pass some of the evening.
“Yes, ma’am, just two blocks south of here on Provost Street. Turn right at the church and it’s just about two more minutes from there. It’s a fine theatre.”
Thanking the clerk, she headed up to the room, tipped the bellhop, and took out a dress for the evening. After freshening up she completed her outfit by pulling on her crisp white gloves. She took care to ensure they were always spotless, a visual sign of her success and class. She put on her coat, headed downstairs, and stepped out into the cool evening air.
At the theatre box office, she requested one ticket on the floor, her preferred spot for best enjoying a movie. After receiving her ticket she made her way to the floor, handing her ticket to the ticket taker who advised her that her ticket was for the balcony. Thinking there must be some kind of mistake, she walked back to ticket seller at the box office.
“I’m sorry to trouble you. I paid for a seat on the floor and you gave me a ticket for the balcony.”
“No mistake ma’am, your ticket is for the balcony.”
“I see that sir, but I did request a seat on the floor and that is where I’d like to sit. If there’s some mistake I’m happy to pay the difference.”
“Ma’am, your ticket is for the balcony. You’ll have to sit there if you want to see the movie.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not understanding why I can’t sit where I requested?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.”
She took in a breath, standing up a little straighter in the process, looking at the young man behind the glass while doing so, before turning away and walking back inside to take her seat on the floor.
Not long after taking her seat, a man arrived and stood next to her.
“Good evening, ma’am. I’m the manager here. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to take your seat in the balcony, as indicated on your ticket. If you refuse, we’ll have to ask you to leave”
She turned towards the man and explained that she requested a seat on the floor and was happy to pay any difference in cost required.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible. You were sold a ticket for the balcony. Now, we have the right to refuse admission to any objectionable person who won’t obey the rules.”
She pointed out that she was never refused admission, and had in fact been sold a ticket, which she held up to show the man. She also clarified that she was happy to have exchanged it when she first went back to the ticket seller, but was refused. She politely told the manager she was not leaving.
A short while later, a police officer arrived, grabbed her roughly, and dragged her out of the theatre, injuring her hip and knee in the process.
She was taken directly to jail.
There, she was met by the chief of police, who was accompanied by the theatre manager. The pair left together, returning an hour later with a warrant for her arrest. She was held in a cell overnight, unsure what the morning would bring. All night she salt bolt upright, her white gloves still on her hands, her composure maintained; they would not see any fear.
In the morning, she was taken to court, without counsel, and charged with attempting to defraud the provincial government of Nova Scotia, based on the one cent amusement tax that was the difference between the upstairs and downstairs movie ticket prices. While she tried to explain the situation once again, the judge decided to fine her $26 – six of which went to manager of the theatre, also listed as the prosecutor in the case.
In the aftermath, communities rallied around her to fight her conviction. On the advice of her doctor who tended to her injuries later, she contacted a lawyer in order to reverse her charge. A lawyer prepared a case based on her being unlawfully removed from the theatre, determining that to be his strongest defense.
The case never made it to trial.
It was then taken to the Supreme Court where it was denied, based on the grounds it should have been appealed within 10 days of the conviction, which by then was more than two months past.
Years later, her marriage having fallen apart, she left her business and moved to Montreal.
She died in New York City at the age of 50.
On March 8, 2018, fifty-three years, one month, and one day after her death, Viola Desmond was unveiled as the new face of the Canadian $10 bill.
On the reverse of the new vertical note is the Canadian Museum of Human Rights – the place where I first learned of Viola’s story.
In 1946, when Viola walked into the Roseland Theatre to watch a movie, there were no Slavery Acts in Canada. In fact, the legal nature of racial discrimination was not set in any laws. Instead, the two competing principles that were considered in such matters were freedom of commerce, and an individual’s right to freedom from discrimination based on race, creed, or colour. While neither principle took precedence over the other, there were not any courts in the province of Nova Scotia that had ruled on the illegality of racial discrimination in hotels, restaurants or theatres.
Viola was an ordinary person who became remarkable simply for standing up for her rights. It’s not known exactly how she viewed herself in terms of being a leader against racial discrimination, but what is clear is that she believed in being treated with dignity and respect; being treated like a human.
Our campuses are full of leaders who do not yet know their potential. Young people who one day may be faced with a simple choice to either persevere in their rightful action, or choose to walk away.
Nova Scotia legally ended segregation in 1954, eight years after Viola was forcibly removed from the Roseland Theatre. And on April 15, 2010, sixty-four years after that injustice, Viola Desmond was granted a free pardon from the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.
One could say we’ve come a long way, but the reality is we need more Viola’s to call attention to wrongdoings based on the colour of a person’s skin. There were no acts or laws condoning the discriminatory actions in 1946, just unofficial societal norms. In 1982, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau founded The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, granting us lawful abilities to be free of such behaviours and actions, but we know this is not enough to combat the many contrary beliefs and conducts of those who still live by those unofficial societal “norms”.
Somewhere on our campuses, or maybe even far from a campus, are voices ready to be heard. Let’s hope it does not take sixty-four years to understand them.
*Please note, the above is a fictionalized version of Viola’s Desmond’s stop in New Glasgow, and the incident that followed at the Roseland Theatre. For more reading on Viola Desmond, check out: