Toronto film festival renaming largest cinema after civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond

by Cassidy Chisholm · 

CBC News · Posted: Nov 09, 2022

Viola Desmond was arrested on Nov. 8, 1946 for refusing to leave a whites-only section of a New Glasgow, N.S., cinema. Her defiance helped motivate the struggle against racial segregation in Canada. (Communications Nova Scotia/Bank of Canada/Flickr)

The Toronto International Film Festival has announced it will rename its largest cinema in honour of Canadian civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond.

CEO Cameron Bailey made the announcement at a special event marking Viola Desmond Day at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto Tuesday evening.

He said Cinema 1 will officially be unveiled as the Viola Desmond Cinema in 2023.

“We wanted to honour her because we feel her story deserves to be better known and, of course, as a film organization … it just made sense because her active resistance was in a cinema,” Bailey said before the announcement.

The Toronto International Film Festival operates out of the Bell Lightbox on King Street. Cinema 1 is being renamed the Viola Desmond Cinema. (TIFF)

Desmond was arrested while watching a movie at the former Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., in 1946. The theatre was segregated at that time, with Black patrons relegated to the balcony while floor seating was reserved for whites.

She was nearsighted and sat in the floor section to see the screen properly. When she refused to leave, she was dragged from the theatre by police.

After her arrest, she was left in jail for 12 hours before being fined $26 for tax evasion. The fine, based on the one-cent difference in tax paid for floor and balcony tickets, was the only way local authorities could legally justify Desmond’s jailing.

Her defiance helped motivate the struggle against racial segregation in Canada.

Tuesday’s event was held to recognize Desmond’s legacy and that of Robson, who was an activist in her own right and instrumental in bringing recognition to her sister’s contribution to Canadian civil rights.

Wanda Robson was the youngest sister of the late civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond and an activist in her own right. She is seen holding the Royal Canadian Mint silver collector coin honouring her sister. (CNW Group/Royal Canadian Mint)

Thanks to Robson’s activism, Desmond, who died in 1965, was given a posthumous apology and pardon for her arrest by the province in April 2010.

“When there are acts of resistance, when there’s injustice to be fought against, it’s the people who keep telling the story and make it visible, that’s a very important part of the struggle as well, so it was important to recognize both of the sisters,” Bailey said.

He added that two front-row seats, side-by-side in the cinema, will be dedicated to Desmond and Robson as a reminder of their courage and advocacy.

$2M fundraising campaign

Along with the renaming of the cinema, TIFF has also announced a $2-million fundraising campaign that will support Black women storytellers, enhance programming for Black audiences, eliminate access barriers and amplify Desmond and Robson’s stories.

The non-profit cultural film organization has pledged to raise the money over five years, as part of its Every Story fund.

“We all deserve to have our stories told and to have audiences have access to those stories equally and that hasn’t happened in the past. Space does need to be opened up. Space needs to be made,” Bailey said. 

“And in the case of Viola, she was speaking for herself and for her community, the Black community in Nova Scotia, but I think that’s a lesson for all of us to learn, to remember that where we see gaps, where we see inequity in terms of people having access and having an equal seat at the table, that there’s still work to be done.”

Source: CBC News