Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz today, Thursday, March 8th, which incidentally is International Women’s Day, unveiled a new $10 bill featuring civil rights icon Viola Desmond – honoring her trailblazing act of defiance which had been overlooked for decades by most Canadians.
The bill marks a growing recognition of Desmond’s refusal to leave the whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre on Nov. 8, 1946 – nearly a decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama – and the seminal role it played in Canada’s civil rights movement.
Desmond is often described as Canada’s Rosa Parks after she refused to leave her seat in the “whites only” section at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in 1946.
Desmond, 32, was dragged out of the theatre by police and jailed.
The civil rights activist was convicted of defrauding the province of a one-penny tax — the difference in tax between a downstairs and upstairs ticket — even though Desmond had asked to pay the difference.
Segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia in 1954, in part because of the publicity generated by Desmond’s case.
Desmond’s story went largely untold for a half-century, but in recent years she has been featured on a stamp, and her name graces a Halifax harbour ferry. There are plans for a park in Toronto and streets in Montreal and Halifax to bear her name.
This makes Viola Desmond the first black person – and the first non-royal woman – on a regularly circulating Canadian bank note.
The purple $10 polymer bill is also the first vertically oriented bank note issued in Canada.
A spokesperson from the Bank of Canada said the new bill won’t be added to circulation until late 2018
“It’s a long-awaited sense of belonging for the African Canadian community,” said Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.
“The launch of the bill sends people of African descent the message that Canada is finally accepting us. We belong.”
While her civil disobedience was remarkable, Grosse said racial segregation and systemic discrimination was once commonplace in Nova Scotia.
“It’s a familiar story,” he said. “It’s something that a lot of African Canadians once experienced, so they can sympathize and they can connect with it.”
That’s what makes the new $10 bill such a powerful act of acceptance, Grosse said.
“It’s a remarkable story. It really shows the progression of society, and that’s one of the reasons why it seems to have gained this groundswell of interest over the last couple years,” he said.
Grosse said fear of differences and diversity remains, but those issues can now be discussed openly, and people are able to openly discuss problems.
“It shows that society has come a long way from where it was. A lot of the times those things would have happened in shadows and they would have been ignored in the past,” he said. “Now we’re having frank discussions about what we can do about it. That’s a step in the right direction.”