Over the course of Canada’s history, there have been countless remarkable and influential individuals who’ve helped to shape our country and the collective values many of us share as Canadians. Each stride and story is unique, and learning about them — whether through books or museums or other avenues of recognition — is a great way to better understand and appreciate our nation’s rich history. For quite some time, the Bank of Canada has made efforts to tell the stories of Canada through the artwork and portrayals on its bank notes, and now, for the first time ever, an iconic Canadian woman is being featured on a regularly circulating bank note. On Monday, Nov. 19, the new $10 bank note officially goes into circulation, and it features a portrait of Viola Desmond, a successful Canadian businesswoman and defender of civil rights.
It was on International Women’s Day back in 2016 when the Bank of Canada first announced their plans to feature an iconic Canadian woman on the $10 bill. Canadians were encouraged to submit nominations, and the goal through that public consultation process was to spark a national conversation about the impact and contributions of women in Canadian history. As a result, an impressive 26,000 submissions were received and a total of 461 women became eligible nominees. That list was narrowed to 12 , and then with the guidance of historical experts and the results from a public opinion survey, the Bank of Canada selected Viola Desmond from a shortlist of five top nominees.
In honour of Viola Desmond, the impact she had on Canada’s history and the introduction of this historic $10 bill, I’d like to share her compelling and important story.
Viola Desmond (1914–1965)
Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Viola Desmond began her career as a teacher, but her true aspiration was to be successful in business. Motivated by her hard-working and community-focused parents, Viola took steps to become an independent businesswoman in the hair and beauty industry, overcoming racial barriers to attend Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal and then continuing her training in Atlantic City and New York. On the heels of her training, she took great strides to make a name for herself as a successful beauty parlour owner and beautician in Halifax. She then established the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, where she mentored and provided training to support the growth of employment for young black women in Nova Scotia. Enrolment at the school quickly expanded, and she began accepting students from New Brunswick and Quebec as well.
While already a prominent businesswoman and definitely notable in that regard, it was in 1946 when an experience occurred that changed her life and marked a turning point in Canadian civil rights history. Viola had gone to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, but when she purchased her ticket, she quickly realized the theatre had racially segregated seating.
After requesting a seat on the main floor of the theatre, Viola was instead given a ticket for the balcony. Rejecting the notion that she had to sit somewhere based on the colour of her skin (and unsuccessfully trying to pay the difference in the ticket cost to the cashier), Viola took a seat on the main floor. As a result, she was removed from the theatre, arrested, sent to jail for the night and charged with “attempting to defraud the provincial government,” based on the difference in tax between the balcony and main floor ticket prices.
Throughout her trial, Viola was not provided with counsel or told that she was entitled to it. And while a civil suit on her behalf never made it to trial, her case eventually went to the Supreme Court and helped to raise awareness about the reality of Canadian segregation. Her courage also inspired a wider civil rights movement, and in 1954, segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia.
Viola Desmond passed away in 1965, and her story went largely untold until decades later when her sister, Wanda Robson, began to speak out and made an effort to share Viola’s story to develop public attention. And it wasn’t until 2010 when Viola was granted a pardon and official apology, recognizing her experience was a social injustice.
For more information on the new $10 bank note, please visit www.bankofcanada.ca/banknotes/vertical10/