In November 1946, hair salon owner Viola Desmond went to a film at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia… Unaware that the theatre was segregated, the Black Nova Scotian chose a main‐floor seat. When she refused to move to the balcony, where Black patrons were expected to sit, she was arrested and dragged out of the theatre.. In Canada, there were no official laws enforcing separation of Black and white Canadians. However, communities and businesses such as shops, theatres and restaurants made their own unofficial rules.
Then on “November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond was convicted and fined for defrauding the government for sitting in the wrong place at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Although she offered to pay the difference between the upstairs and downstairs tickets, she was still arrested and detained” as Madison Veinotte writes.
Veinotte goes on to describe how the Supreme Court failed to take up the appeal on weak (in my view) procedural grounds. Nonetheless, Veinotte quotes that Justice Hall (part of the Supreme Court that denied taking up the appeal), “One wonders if the Manager of the Theatre who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide belief there had been an attempt to defraud the Province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavor to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a Public Statute.”
While couched as a rhetorical statement, the answer is clearly yes. Enforcing a privatized from of Jim Crow is precisely what the manager of the business was doing. The case illustrates the insidious nature of racism and the limitations of using the court to redress wrongs. While the Supreme Court of Canada, post Charter, has written some landmark rulings and has set a solid foundation for human rights in Canada, this particular ruling of the Court is a blemish on its history in Canada. Further to the foregoing, while this ruling was pre-Constitution and Charter, it is, nonetheless, regrettable that the Court stood on ambiguous procedural grounds in its refusal to consider the appeal. Profiles in courage it is not!
This case underscores, however, precisely why human rights needs to be part of the consciousness of free people acting in a noble manner that upholds the dignity of every person irrespective of race, gender or gender expression, creed, sexual orientation, or class to name just a few.
The strategy must be both the heart, mind, and even body. Legislation and jurisprudence has its place – Martin Luther King famously said that while legislation will not change the heart, it will restrain the heartless – but work also needs to occur in our consciousness and this happens through education.
And part of that education is in Black History month beginning February .