Halifax community celebrates new $10 bill in honour of civil rights icon Viola Desmond

Halifax community celebrates new $10 bill in honour of civil rights icon Viola Desmond
Canadas new $10 bill featuring Viola Desmond officially enters circulation
Wanda Robson still finds it hard to believe that her big sister is the new face of the $10 bill – and the first Canadian woman to be featured on a regularly circulating banknote.

The sister of the late Nova Scotia civil rights pioneer and businesswoman Viola Desmond, Robson said the move to include a black woman on the bill is a “giant step forward” in continuing Desmond’s work toward equality.

A Viola Desmond primer: Whos the woman on todays new Canadian $10 bill?

“I’m so grateful and I’m happy,” said Robson, who turns 92 next month. “Those are sort of mundane words, but I’m looking for a word that would describe it, and all I can say is what the kids say today: it’s awesome!”

Robson will make the first purchase with the new bill during a ceremony Monday at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, where Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz and museum president John Young will officially launch the banknote.

For her first purchase, Robson plans to buy a book co-written by her and Cape Breton University professor Graham Reynolds about Desmond’s life and legacy, and give it to her 12-year-old granddaughter so she can learn more about her great-aunt’s story.

“I think this is a significant moment for us as a people and for me as an immigrant coming to Canada and seeing Viola being recognized. It means that I’m more accepted in this society and it’s great for me and it’s a great moment. It’s amazing,” Njabulo Nkala said moments after getting one of the treasured new bills.

Robson said her granddaughter has shown a longtime interest in Desmond, despite being born decades after her death in 1965.

“She said, ‘You know nan, when I get my first ten dollar bill with aunt Viola on it, I’m going to frame it, and put it on a wall, and never, ever spend it,”‘ Robson said.

“Viola Desmond’s image on the $10 bill celebrates the power of a small, courageous act. … We all know that the road to justice for Ms. Desmond was a long one. The justice she sought came later. Today we are still striving for equality and equity and there does remain a great deal of work to be done,” Hanson told the crowd.

On Nov. 8, 1946, Desmond was arrested after refusing to leave a whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., in an incident that has since become one of the most high-profile cases of racial discrimination in Canadian history.

Robson has spent years educating children and adults alike about how her sister’s case helped shine a light on Canada’s burgeoning civil rights movement.

“As you all know, Viola Desmond was an educated, ambitious, confident businesswoman well ahead of her time. … She discovered in 1946 that Canada was not ready to recognize that racism and segregation existed,” Monique LeBlanc, Atlantic Canada regional director (currency) for the Bank of Canada, told the crowd.

She said the new bill’s national circulation will lead to even more awareness about Desmond’s story, and the wider issue of racial discrimination in Canada.

“I’ve lived in Halifax for 15 years, I work with the Black communities, I’m part of the community here. I think with this note, it’s not that we’ve arrived, but I think it recognizes our struggles, where we have come from, and I think it speaks to where we are going as a people too.”

“It’s a giant step forward into knowledge about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, and I really hope that this bill will get not only children, but adults, to say, ‘who is that?’ And then people will be able to pass on what Viola did and the amazing differences she made.”

“I’ve lived in Halifax for 15 years, I work with the Black communities, I’m part of the community here. I think with this note, it’s not that we’ve arrived, but I think it recognizes our struggles, where we have come from, and I think it speaks to where we are going as a people too.”

Desmond was selected to be on the bill after an open call for nominations and a public opinion survey on the Bank of Canada website.

Behind her portrait, the banknote also shows a map of Halifax’s historic north end, home to one of Canada’s oldest black communities and the area where Desmond grew up.

The map includes the stretch of Gottingen Street, where Desmond opened a salon as part of a business that would eventually expand into her own line of cosmetics and a beauty school, which allowed her to mentor black women from across the country.

LeBlanc told the gathered crowd that she visited Desmond’s sister Wanda Robson two weeks ago at her home in North Sydney to record Robson getting a sneak peek of the $10 banknote. Robson was described by LeBlanc as instrumental in ensuring her sister’s story and legacy weren’t forgotten.

READ MORE: ‘She would be humbled’: Viola Desmond to receive star from Canada’s Walk of Fame in Halifax

LeBlanc told the gathered crowd that she visited Desmond’s sister Wanda Robson two weeks ago at her home in North Sydney to record Robson getting a sneak peek of the $10 banknote. Robson was described by LeBlanc as instrumental in ensuring her sister’s story and legacy weren’t forgotten.

In recognition of the bill launch, Halifax’s North End Business Association is hosting “Celebrate Viola,” a multi-day event from Wednesday to Sunday that will feature a roundtable discussion about the civil rights movement, an original musical about Desmond’s life, and a tribute concert.

The official launch of the bill took place at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, in the presence of Wanda Robson and her family. Robson is Desmond's youngest sister and has long campaigned for greater awareness for her sister's story.

The bill is the first vertically oriented banknote in Canada, and also includes a picture of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and an eagle feather, which the Bank of Canada said represents the “ongoing journey toward recognizing rights and freedoms for Indigenous Peoples in Canada.”

"I think that it's a reminder to keep fighting the good fight, even when you're outnumbered, or even when sometimes your voice might be silenced or ignored, it's a reminder to keep going."

Desmond has received numerous posthumous accolades, including having a Halifax Transit ferry named after her and receiving a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.

In 1946, while making a stop on a business trip from Halifax, Desmond was arrested and tossed out of a New Glasgow, N.S., movie theatre for sitting in the whites-only section. She spent the night under arrest.

In 1946, Viola Desmonds stand at a segregated Nova Scotia movie theatre made her into a civil-rights icon for black Canadians. On Monday, $10 banknotes commemorating her officially enter circulation, the first time a Canadian woman has been celebrated on the face of her countrys currency.

"I think it's inspiring for black women, for young women who think about business," said Parris-Drummond. "It also tells us that a small action that we take can have big results."

The Queen is in good company, Ms. Desmonds sister Wanda Robson said Monday in a ceremony at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, which is featured on the other side of the bill. The 91-year-old was due to make the first purchase with one of the new $10 bills. From Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz, also received a framed engraving of her sister and two banknotes with special serial numbers.

Many speakers at the Halifax launch reminded the gathering that work to remove racism and foster social justice is not over. They suggested Desmond's story will help in educating the next generation.

Viola Desmond was a cosmetics pioneer for black women in Atlantic Canada. Following in the footsteps of her father, a Halifax barber, Ms. Desmond started out in business at a time when few beauty schools would accept black students. After training in Montreal, Atlantic City and New York, she founded her own institution, Halifaxs Desmond School of Beauty Culture, selling her own line of hair and skin products across Nova Scotia. But on one business trip on Nov. 8, 1946, when her car broke down in New Glasgow, Ms. Desmond would become famous for another reason.

The fateful movie she went to see was The Dark Mirror, a psychological thriller starring Olivia de Havilland. She was at the Roseland Theatre to kill time while a garage repaired her car, which wouldnt be ready until the next day. But the Roseland was a segregated theatre; the floor seats were for whites only, while black patrons were confined to the balcony. Ms. Desmond was shortsighted and needed a better view, and tried to buy a floor seat, but was refused because she was black. She then bought a balcony seat (which was one cent cheaper) but sat in the floor area – until theatre staff called the police and had her dragged out. She spent 12 hours in jail.

She said, I stretched out and I was just getting comfortable and I thought, oh, this is nice, and I wont worry about anything, her sister, Wanda Robson, recalled at the 2016 ceremony where the Desmond banknote was announced. And then this usher came up and told her she couldnt sit there.

A nightclub that was once home to the Roseland Theatre is shown in downtown New Glasgow, N.S., on April 29, 2010.

She was charged and convicted of tax evasion – over a single penny. She did not have a lawyer at trial – she was never informed she was entitled to one. Arguing that Ms. Desmond had evaded the one-cent difference between the balcony and floor ticket prices, a judge fined her $26. Protests from Nova Scotias black community and an appeal to the provincial Supreme Court proved fruitless, and Ms. Desmond died in 1965 without any acknowledgment of racial discrimination in her case.

About 90 people gathered just off Halifax's Gottingen Street on Monday to celebrate the newly circulating $10 banknote featuring civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond.

In 2010, Nova Scotia gave her a free pardon – and the black lieutenant-governor signed it into law. Here I am, 64 years later – a black woman giving freedom to another black woman, Mayann Francis recalled in a 2014 profile about the pardon, which called Ms. Desmonds case a miscarriage of justice and said she should never have been charged. I believe she has to know that she is now free.

Desmond owned and operated a beauty salon on Gottingen Street and also opened a beauty school where she trained other young black women to start their own businesses.

April 15, 2010: Nova Scotia lieutenant-governor Mayann Francis signs the official pardon for Viola Desmond as her sister Wanda Robson, left, then-premier Darrell Dexter and Percy Paris, minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, look on at a ceremony at the legislature in Halifax.

Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: [email protected]

Ms. Desmond has often been compared to Rosa Parks, the U.S. civil rights heroine who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.

"I think it's really beautiful that an African-Nova Scotian woman who stood up for social justice is being honoured nationally," she said.

But Ms. Robson said in 2016 that her sister didnt want to join any formal protest movements. She had her beauty school to run – and that was her inspiration to help her community. “She said, Im not the person to go around and be an activist for something. I will speak anywhere, but I cant make it my lifes mission,” Ms. Robson said. “My lifes mission is to be a hairdresser, to be the beauty consultant for all the black women, any black woman that comes to me, and to teach them, teach them to do what I do, so I can send them out in Nova Scotia or wherever they want to go and work with the black population,” Ms. Robson said.

Her ensuing legal fight against that injustice helped end segregation in Nova Scotia. In 2010, she was posthumously awarded an apology and a free pardon.

Feb. 22, 1956: Rosa Parks is fingerprinted by police Lieutenant D.H. Lackey in Montgomery, Ala., after refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger.

Ms. Desmond was the first historical woman of colour to get her own Heritage Minute, released in February, 2016, for Black History Month Actress Kandyse McClure portrayed her I am honoured to give voice to a woman whose only crime was the expectation of being treated not as black or as a woman, but as a human being, Ms. McClure wrote in an article for the Huffington Post at the time. Historica Canada has since produced another Heritage Minute focusing on a woman of colour, Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak.

When the Trudeau government opened public consultations to choose a historical woman for the $10 bill, Ms. Desmond was one of five to make the shortlist, along with First Nations 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 (Bobbie) Rosenfeld, a track and field athlete.

The government announced the final choice in December, 2016, and in March of 2018 they unveiled the design of the bill: The first vertically oriented banknote in Canada. Behind Ms. Desmonds portrait is a map including the stretch of Gottingen Street, the citys north ends main drag, where she opened her salon. On the other side of the bill is a picture of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and an eagle feather, which the Bank of Canada said represents the ongoing journey toward recognizing rights and freedoms for Indigenous Peoples in Canada.