Viola Desmond chosen as first Canadian woman to grace banknote’s face

By , on December 9, 2016


Viola Desmond (Wikipedia Photo)
Viola Desmond (Wikipedia Photo)

GATINEAU, Que. Viola Desmond, often described as Canada’s Rosa Parks for her 1946 decision to sit in a whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre, will be the first Canadian woman to be celebrated on the face of her country’s currency.

Desmond will grace the front of the $10 bill when the next series goes into circulation in 2018, Finance Minister Bill Morneau told a news conference Thursday at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.

“Today is about recognizing the incalculable contribution that all women have had and continue to have in shaping Canada’s story. Viola Desmond’s own story reminds all of us that big change can start with moments of dignity and bravery,” Morneau said.

“She represents courage, strength and determination_qualities we should all aspire to every day.”

Desmond’s sister Wanda Robson, who was instrumental in making Desmond’s story more widely known, was on hand for the announcement.

“It’s a big day to have a woman on a banknote, but it’s an especially big day to have your big sister on a banknote,” she said. “Our family is extremely proud and honoured.”

Even though Desmond has been compared to Parks, the U.S. civil rights hero who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, Desmond’s story received little attention until recent years.

Prof. Isaac Saney, a senior instructor of black studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said Desmond was ahead of her time.

“It’s a very positive thing in terms of honouring someone who was a trailblazer, and until recently was forgotten within the Canadian struggle for human rights,” Saney said.

Unlike Parks, who was part of an well-organized protest movement seeking its day in court, Desmond’s act of defiance was a singular act of courage, he added.

“When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat, an entire mass civil rights movement was ignited … That didn’t exist in 1946. The civil rights movement hadn’t taken off. This militant approach to politics didn’t take off until the 1950s and 60s.”

Saney said he hopes that as Canadians discover Desmond’s story, they will come to learn that the unsanitized version of Canadian history includes dark chapters about colonialism, slavery and institutionalized racism.

Thursday’s short list included poet E. Pauline Johnson; Elsie MacGill, who received an electrical engineering degree from the University of Toronto in 1927; Quebec suffragette Idola Saint-Jean; and 1928 Olympic medallist Fanny Rosenfeld, a track and field athlete.

Famous Five activist Nellie McClung, the Alberta suffragette who fought in the 1920s for women to be legally recognized as persons in Canada, was for many Canadians the most obvious omission from the short list.

There were more than 26,000 submissions from the public, which was later whittled down to 461 eligible nominees who had Canadian citizenship and had been dead for at least 25 years.

Others who didn’t make the cut included “Anne of Green Gables” author Lucy Maud Montgomery; B.C. artist Emily Carr; and Manitoba author Gabrielle Roy.

In a recent online survey, 27 per cent of respondents made McClung their No. 1 choice for the first Canadian woman, with Quebec politician Therese Casgrain, MacGill, Montgomery, Carr and Desmond rounding out the top six choices.

The Bank of Canada’s independent advisory council said it was looking for nominees who overcame barriers, inspired others or left a lasting legacy.

By every measure, Desmond fits that bill.

A businesswoman turned civil libertarian, Desmond built a business as a beautician and, through her beauty school, was a mentor to young black women in Nova Scotia.

It was in 1946 when she rejected racial discrimination by sitting in a whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre. She was arrested and fined; her actions inspired later generations of black people in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada.

“She believed you could only be successful in life with an education, especially if you were a young black person,” Robson said. “If I used bad grammar, she always corrected mein a nice way, of course all the time.”

“If you wanted another lady, other than the Queen, to be on the bill, you’ve chosen the right person. At least, I think so.”

The Bank of Canada says it will use the occasion of the new $10 bill to shake up other banknotes as well. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, will move from the $10 to a higher denomination, as will Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who is currently on the $5.

That spot will go to another “note-able” Canadian, who will be chosen in due course in much the same way as Desmond was, the bank says. Former prime ministers Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King will be dropped from the $100 and the $50.

The $20 bill, which has long featured the Queen, will remain unchanged.

While it’s the first time a woman other than the Queen has been on the face of a Canadian banknote, the Famous Five suffragettes, along with Casgrain, were featured on the back side of a $50 bill unveiled in 2004.

The women were dropped from the bill in 2011 when a new polymer version was introduced.