Viola Desmond’s trailblazing act of defiance — overlooked for decades by most Canadians — was honoured Thursday in a Halifax ceremony that cemented her new status as a civil rights icon.
A new $10 bill featuring Desmond was unveiled by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz.
The purple polymer bill — the first vertically oriented bank note issued in Canada — includes a portrait of Desmond and a historic map of north end Halifax on one side and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg on the other.
“It was long past time for a bank note to feature an iconic Canadian woman,” Poloz told the large crowd gathered at the Halifax Central Library on International Women’s Day despite a blustery snowstorm and flickering power. “That’s been a goal of mine since I became governor.”
Morneau said the deck was “doubly stacked” against Desmond because of her gender and the colour of her skin. He said she stood up for what she believed in and helped make the country a better place.
“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,” he said.
“Her legal challenge galvanized the black community in Halifax’s north end and paved the way for a broader understanding of human rights across our country.”
The bill, which also features an eagle feather and an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was met by a standing ovation.
Yet it was Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson, that stole the show. Now in her 90s, Robson captivated the Halifax audience with her genuine delight at seeing her sister on Canadian currency.
“I was speechless,” she said describing her reaction to the bank note. “It’s beyond what I ever thought. It’s beautiful.”
Desmond becomes the first black person — and the first non-royal woman — on a regularly circulating Canadian bank note.
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’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.
Her story started with a business trip 71 years ago. Desmond, a beautician and entrepreneur from north end Halifax who sold her own line of cosmetics, was headed to Sydney, N.S., when her car broke down. Stuck in New Glasgow overnight, she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre.
The segregated theatre relegated black patrons to the balcony, while floor seating was reserved for whites. Desmond, who was short-sighted and could not see properly from the back, sat in the floor section and refused to leave.
She was dragged out of the theatre by police, arrested, thrown in jail for 12 hours and fined.
“Viola Desmond carried out a singular act of courage,” Saney said. “There was no movement behind her, she was ahead of the times.”
It would take 63 years for Nova Scotia to issue Desmond, who died in 1965, a posthumous apology and pardon.
The new bill is expected to enter circulation at the end of the year.
Robson refused to return her bill Thursday, prompting laughter from the audience. Morneau joked that even he doesn’t have the authority to take it back.
“You just can’t spend it between now and the end of the year,” he told her.
Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press