Black rights activist Viola Desmond will be the first Canadian woman to be featured on an $10 bill, beginning in 2018.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz announced the selection of the beautician and businesswoman, who is best known for her refusal to accept racial segregation in a Nova Scotia movie theatre, during an announcement in Ottawa today.
Desmond is often referred to as “Canada’s Rosa Parks.”
Morneau called it a “tremendous challenge” to select one woman who will represent the countless contributions of women throughout Canada’s history.
Morneau said it was important to pick just one single woman so their story will be remembered, and serve as an inspiration to all.
Poloz called it a “historic day” to celebrate women’s role and contributions in Canada.
She is best-known for being jailed in 1946 by police for sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow, N.S., movie theatre. The theatre’s policy forced black people to sit upstairs in a balcony.
Craig Smith is the president of the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia, and said he was “as happy as can be” when he heard she was selected for the bill.
“I was shocked but elated at the same time,” he said. “Growing up in Halifax in the same community where she was born, and my grandmother and her mum being best friends, it gives that personal touch as well.”
Smith said the milestone shows how much progress has been made in recognizing the achievements of African-Nova Scotians.
“Every time somebody — whether they be in B.C. or Iqaluit or Fogo Island — goes to the store and pulls out a $10 bill there will be an African-Nova Scotian gracing the face of that bill.
She’s often described as “Canada’s Rosa Parks,” but if anything, Rosa Parks is America’s Viola Desmond.
The civil rights icon and new face of the Canadian $10 bill refused to give up her seat in a whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre nine years before Parks’s famous act of civil disobedience on a racially segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala.
“Viola was passionate about people. She inspired them and she inspires us,” Desmond’s 89-year-old sister Wanda Robson said Thursday when the bill was announced at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.
Now she’s made history again as the first Canadian woman to be featured on the $10 bill.
Between 2004 and 2012, the back of the $50 bill featured Quebec suffragette Thérèse Casgrain and the “The Famous Five” Canadians who fought for women to be recognized as persons under law: Louise Crummy McKinney, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie Mooney McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Emily Murphy.
Born and raised in Halifax to parents who were active members of the city’s black community, Desmond was always ambitious.
At a time when opportunities were extremely limited for women and black people, she set out to establish a career in business.
She studied at the Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal, one of the few institutions that accepted black students, and went on to open Vi’s Studio of Beauty and Culture, a Halifax beauty parlour and shop that catered to black women.
From there, she expanded her empire, founding the Desmond School of Beauty Culture and launching a line of products sold at venues owned by her graduates.
On Nov. 8, 1946, Desmond, who was then 32, had some time to spare while she was waiting to get her car fixed, so she decided to catch a movie at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow.
She sat in the slightly more expensive, and implicitly whites-only, section of the theatre. She was asked to move, but she refused — so she was removed by force.
“The usher came up and said, ‘Miss, you are sitting in the wrong seat, you can’t sit here, that seat is more expensive,’ so Viola said, 'OK, I’ll go and pay the difference,’” her sister and Wanda Robson, who has dedicated her life to telling Desmond’s story, told CBC News earlier this year.
“But when the usher came again and said, 'I’m going to have to get a manager.’ Viola said, 'Get the manager. I’m not doing anything wrong.’”