The Toronto International Film Festival has announced it will rename its largest cinema in honor of Canadian civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond.
CEO Cameron Bailey made the announcement at a special Viola Desmond Day event at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Tuesday afternoon.
He said Cinema 1 will be officially launched as Viola Desmond Cinema in 2023.
“We wanted to honor her because we think her story deserves to be better known and, of course, as a film organization … it made sense because her active resistance was in a movie theater,” Bailey said before the announcement.
Desmond was arrested while watching a movie at the former Roseland Theater in New Glasgow, NS, in 1946. The theater was segregated at the time, with Black patrons relegated to the balcony while floor seats were reserved for whites.
She was nearsighted and sat on the floor to see the screen properly. When she refused to leave, she was dragged from the theater by the police.
After her arrest, she was held 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 the local authorities could legally justify imprisoning Desmond.
Her defiance helped motivate the fight against racial segregation in Canada.
Tuesday’s event was held to recognize Desmond’s legacy and his own Robson, who was an activist in her own right and was instrumental in recognizing her sister’s contribution to civil rights in Canada.
Thanks to Robson’s activism, Desmond, who died in 1965, received a posthumous pardon and pardon for her arrest from the province in April 2010.
“When there are acts of resistance, when injustice has to be fought, it’s the people who continue to tell the story and make it visible, that’s also a very important part of the struggle, so it was important to recognize both sisters,” she said Bailey.
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.
$2 million fundraising campaign
Along with renaming the cinema, TIFF also announced a $2 million fundraising campaign that will support black storytellers, strengthen programming for black audiences, eliminate barriers to access and amplify the stories of Desmond and Robson.
The cultural film not-for-profit has committed to raising the money over five years as part of the Every Story fund.
“We all deserve to have our stories told and to have the public access to those stories equally and that hasn’t happened in the past. The space needs to be opened up. The space needs to be created,” Bailey said.
“And in Viola’s case, she was speaking for herself and her community, the black community in Nova Scotia, but I think that’s a lesson that we all have to learn, to remember that where we see gaps, where we see inequality In terms of people having access and an equal seat at the table, there’s still work to be done.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canadaa CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.
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