Nova Scotia

Viola Desmond was arrested at the Roseland Theatre 70 years ago

One courageous step 70 years ago today in a downtown New Glasgow, Nova Scotia movie theatre helped end segregation in Nova Scotia in 1954.

Her sister, Wanda Robson, says her own first feelings of shame blossomed into a great pride

Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis holds the hand of Wanda Robson, left, as the government grants a pardon to Robson's sister Viola Desmond in 2010. (The Canadian Press)

One courageous step 70 years ago today in a downtown New Glasgow, N.S., movie theatre helped end segregation in Nova Scotia.

On Nov. 8, 1946, Viola Desmond, a black Halifax beautician, stopped by the Roseland Theatre to watch a movie while she waited for her car to get repaired. She was on her way to Sydney to sell her black hair-care products.

She never made it to Sydney. Instead, police jailed the 32-year-old prominent businesswoman, who operated her own hair salon. Her crime? Sitting in the theatre's downstairs, white-only section. The theatre's policy forced black people to sit upstairs in a balcony.

Desmond was not aware of the theatre's policy when she paid $0.40 cents for her downstairs ticket. When Desmond refused to move, the theatre manager called police. Officers dragged Desmond out of the theatre like a common criminal.

Segregation finally ended in Nova Scotia in 1954. 

Desmond's younger sister, Wanda Robson, was 19 when her sister was arrested. 

At her North Sydney home Tuesday, Robson said when she went to work the next morning she was ashamed to tell her co-workers that her sister had gone to jail.

"My head was down and I thought, 'She went to jail, what did she do?'"  Robson said. "I didn't want to hear why, what happened. All I [knew] is she went to jail. And when you're sent to jail you've done something wrong."

'It was an act of courage'

But as the years passed, Robson said she had a change of heart and realized the enormity of her sister's strength.

"It was an act of courage," Robson said. "I'm glad that she did what she thought she should do. 

"She was determined. She joined in the family fun and things like that, but you always knew that Viola was going to have her way quietly, without rudeness."

Wanda Robson shows photos of her sister. She co-wrote Viola Desmond's Canada, a book about her fight for equal treatment.

The next morning, Desmond was convicted of defrauding the province of one penny — the difference in tax between a downstairs and upstairs ticket. Desmond had offered to pay the difference in price.

Desmond was released that morning after paying a $20 fine and $6 in court costs. She appealed her conviction but lost.

In 2010, the Province of Nova Scotia finally apologized and pardoned Desmond for something it said she should have never been arrested for in the first place.

Earlier this year in Halifax, a Halifax Transit ferry was named in Desmond's honour.

The new Halifax Transit ferry Viola Desmond started sailing this summer. (The Canadian Press)

Desmond died in 1965. She was 50. She's buried in Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax.

With files from Norma Jean MacPhee