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

Published on February 13, 2013

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.