While driving to Sydney, Nova Scotia for business meetings In November of 1946, Viola’s car broke down in New Glasgow. Since repairs would take a long time, she went to the Roseland Theatre to watch a movie. As Viola was short-sighted she asked for a ticket in the lower level. She paid with a dollar bill, got her change and her ticket and then went to find a seat. A theatre employee told her that she had a ticket for the balcony and would have to move. Viola went back to buy a ticket for the lower level but was told “I’m sorry but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs ticket to you people”.
Being ladylike manner and having a sense of decorum, Viola did not make a fuss but merely returned to where she had been seated. The ticket taker followed her to her seat and again asked her to move. When Viola politely refused, the manager demanded that she go up to the balcony. When Viola still refused to move, the manager pointed to the ticket which said the theatre had “the right to refuse admission to any objectionable person”.
Viola’s perfect response was to inform the manager that she had in fact not been refused admission but had bought a ticket and was seated in the theatre.
When Viola refused to move the manager called a police officer who, together with the manager, physically dragged Viola from the theatre and took her to jail overnight.
Unlike South Africa and parts of the U.S., Nova Scotia had no overt segregation laws. In New Glasgow at least, undocumented segregation policies existed. Because there were no segregation laws in Nova Scotia, some creative thinking was needed to come up with a charge. Under the Theatres, Cinematographs and Amusements Act she was charged with fraud for failing to pay an amusement tax.
Viola had bought a ticket which included a tax. When told she was in the wrong section she went to buy an upgraded ticket but they refused to take her money. She would have paid 30₵ for the balcony which included 2₵ in tax. A 40₵ ticket below included 3₵ in tax. To be clear, she was charged with failing to pay the 1₵ difference.
Viola was not advised of her rights to seek bail, to consult a lawyer, to set an adjournment to prepare or anything like that. It was not even a Crown Attorney prosecuting but only the theatre manager. In His Majesty the King v Viola Irene Desmond Viola was found guilty and forced to pay a fine of $20 plus $6 costs.
The media soon learned of this, as did her local community. Viola’s appeal was unsuccessful due to certain technical deficiencies, but her support continued with the help of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. This tiny, quiet and fashionable lady became a pillar of the N. S. Civil Rights community but is now recognized across Canada through her portrayal on the $10 bill.