Pictured: Wanda Robson (sister of Viola Desmond) standing alongside Finance Minister Bill Morneau at the unveiling of the new bill, Photo credit: Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press
While many Americans are well aware of the American Civil Rights Movement and associated icons like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, we forget that similar movements also took place in other countries around the world. On International Women’s Day, a ceremony was held to unveil a new Canadian $10 bill that features one of Canada’s civil rights pioneers, Viola Desmond. She is the first Black person and also the first non-royal woman to grace any Canadian currency.
The Nova Scotia native was selected to be honored in this way after exercising her voice in the Canadian Civil Rights Movement in 1946. At the time, she refused to leave a whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in Nova Scotia and was ultimately dragged out of the theatre. She was jailed overnight and never informed about her legal rights, anticipated bail, nor given a chance to speak with an attorney. She was ultimately released yet fined for her actions. She was automatically sold a ticket for a seat in the theatre balcony reserved for black patrons only. She was unfamiliar with the policy at this particular theatre and by the time she was asked to move, she was comfortable in her seat on the white only main floor. She refused to move and also not to pay the one cent difference in ticket price. For this reason, she was charged with tax evasion.
Upon her return home to Halifax, and to the dismay of her husband at the time, Desmond decided to fight the charges against her and sought support from her church and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP). Ultimately the case against her was thrown out of court and her attempt to bring a discrimination lawsuit against the Roseland Theatre was also unsuccessful yet her mere attempt to fight had already inspired many other black Canadians. After the trial, Desmond moved to Montreal and eventually settled in New York, NY until her death in 1965 at the age of 50. She is buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
While Desmond’s defiance precedes that of Rosa Parks by about a decade, Parks’ story has made her much more of a household name. Finance Minister, Bill Morneau shared: “It’s an important story because it shows that standing up for what we believe, whether it’s on the steps of Parliament Hill or in a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, can make our country and our world a better place for future generations.” Desmond’s likeness appearing on this new $10 bill is sure to spark new interest and awareness around the importance of this brave woman.
The new purple vertically-oriented (also another first for Canadian currency) bill will enter circulation later this year. Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson was present at the unveiling ceremony in Halifax on behalf of her late sister.