Canada is making important history. Civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond is being honored on the Canadian $10 bill. In 2016, Canada’s national bank announced plans to put a non-royalty woman on their currency for the first time and appealed to the public for suggestions. While many wonderful names poured in, Desmond rose to the top and was ultimately selected for the honor. The new bill was unveiled on Thursday and will go into circulation at the end of the year.
Although Desmond’s name might not be known to many, she was truly a pioneer on par with Rosa Parks. In fact, her act of brave defiance predated Rosa’s by nearly a decade. Desmond entered the history books when she refused to leave a whites-only area of the Roseland Theatre in 1946. At this theater, floor seats were for white patrons while black moviegoers were forced to sit in the balcony. Desmond dutifully bought her balcony ticket but sat on the floor anyway, as she was short-sighted. Ultimately, the police were called. When Desmond refused to leave, they dragged her from the theater and she spent 12 hours in jail. She was later charged with tax evasion because of the 1-cent difference between a balcony ticket and a floor ticket, never mind the fact that the theater refused to sell her a floor ticket. After her conviction, she was forced to pay a fine of C$26.
Viola Desmond would be a remarkable woman even without this defining moment. She was a successful entrepreneur who sold her own line of hair and skin products. Her trip to the theater on that fateful day only came about when her car broke down on a business trip. She also ran her own salon, at a time when most beauty schools didn’t accept black students. By necessity, her training was done in Montreal and New York, but she chose to return to her native Halifax because she knew there was a need there. She also opened The Desmond School of Beauty Culture so other black women could train to work in the industry and start their own salons.
Desmond’s actions in that theater ultimately helped to ignite Canada’s civil rights movement and likely played a part in Nova Scotia’s legal end to segregation in 1954. Desmond died in 1965. In 2010, Viola Desmond was posthumously pardoned by Mayann Francis, the first African-Nova Scotian lieutenant-governor. This past January, Canada named her a National Historic Person. And now, her face will grace the $10 bill. Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson, now in her 90s was there for the unveiling. “It’s beyond what I ever thought. It’s beautiful,” she said.