Remembering Viola Desmond: Sue Canon recalls the scene in Roseland Theatre on Nov. 8, 1946

John Brannen
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NEW GLASGOW – On the afternoon of Nov. 8, 1946, Sue Canon convinced her strict mother into letting her go to the local theatre with Donny from across the street on Abercrombie Road.

Little did she know that she would witness a watershed moment in Nova Scotia’s history and a breakthrough in civil rights in the province.

“It was the afternoon and Donny and I had just paid for our tickets to the Roseland Theatre,” said Sue, a New Glasgow native now living in Ontario.

A few hours earlier, unbeknownst to Sue and Donny, a young black woman driving to Sydney for a business meeting stopped in New Glasgow due to car troubles.

Viola Desmond was a highly successful beautician and businesswoman at a time when few women owned and operated independent businesses.

To pass the time while her car was fixed, Viola decided to take in a film at the Roseland theatre.

The theatre had a segregation policy in which whites could sit on the main floor or the balcony but blacks were restricted to the balcony. The prices for floor seats were a few cents more than the balcony seats.

Viola bought her balcony ticket but decided to make her way to the main floor instead.

Sue remembers the atmosphere of the theatre that day. “The movie hadn’t started and people were chatting away,” Sue said.

“This really well-dressed woman swiftly and suddenly took a seat three rows ahead of us.”

When an usher followed closely behind her telling her to take her seat in the balcony, she ignored him.  Even when the theatre manager came over, she didn’t acknowledge their demands.

“She remained stoic and determined,” said Sue. “I was only 15 and I remember being frightened at the whole event.”

Desmond was eventually carried out and thrown into jail for the night. The crime cited was tax evasion, since she paid for a balcony seat, sat on the main floor and therefore didn’t pay the higher price.

It was Jim Crow, segregationist and racist laws under the guise of financial charge. It remained on her criminal record throughout her life.

“It had a huge impact on my life,” said Sue. “I didn’t realize the segregation or discrimination that was present at that time.

“At age 15, I was ignorant to the importance of the event.”

Sue later went on to become a teacher, focusing on English as a second language and working with students with learning disabilities. Sue now recognizes what that afternoon in the theatre has meant for so many in the province and across Canada.

“Viola was a brave woman, a heroine. She possessed a quiet courage, like Rosa Parks I suppose. I don’t know that I would have had the courage to do what she did.”

On April 14, 2010, Viola was granted a posthumous pardon from lieutenant governor Mayanne Francis, Nova Scotia’s first lieutenant governor of African descent. The government of Nova Scotia also apologized.

Organizations: Roseland Theatre

Geographic location: NEW GLASGOW, Nova Scotia, Ontario Sydney Canada

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  • Leanne
    April 10, 2013 - 01:13

    Frank, who said that New Glasgow was any different from any other community across Nova Scotia or elsewhere? I don't see how that is "revising history". Whites were allowed to sit in the balcony or downstairs, Blacks were allowed only to sit in the balcony. They put her in jail overnight, made her to pay a $20 fine and she got a record of tax evasion for life, for paying ONE CENT LESS, but actually for refusing to move up to the balcony. Can you name a white person who has spent a night in jail and paid a fine of 2000% of the original difference in a ticket price at an amusement establishment, and had a record of TAX EVASION for sitting in the wrong seat? What is wrong with you? She challenged it, and was instrumental in getting laws changed so we can no longer discriminate on race (blacks in balcony only, in the cheaper seats. Blacks in the back of the bus only, in the cheaper seats.). Took it to the Supreme Court. You don't think that is newsworthy? I swear, if it were a white man who had challenged discriminatory laws, to win human equality in Nova Scotia and Canada, it would be a big thing. It is offensive that you say we are revising history. And frankly, when she went to beauty school, there WERE NO SCHOOLS IN her hometown in Nova Scotia that allowed blacks to study. You don't think things have changed just a wee bit? Would YOU go to a movie theater these days where one race had to sit in the bad seats in the balcony? I don't think so. I think things have changed a lot. No one is shocked by a woman businessman, or a black student in higher education now.

  • frank
    February 14, 2013 - 22:21

    New Glasgow in 1946 was no different than any other community across Nova Scotia or elsewhere.Racism was here then as it is today.Let us not try and revise history.The authorities upheld the law-she did not pay the correct fare- they were no more racism than most people today.It was another time-hopefully a different time than today-atleast on the surface!