Viola Desmond has made history as the first Canadian woman to appear on the front of a banknote. The civil rights pioneer will be the face of the Canadian $10 bill when the new banknotes begin circulating in 2018.
Often compared to Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955, Viola Desmond was charged for refusing to move seats in a Nova Scotia movie theatre nine years earlier.
When Viola’s car broke down in New Glasgow in 1946, she decided to see the thriller The Dark Mirror at the Roseland Theatre while waiting for repairs. She chose a seat on the main floor because of her poor eyesight. She didn’t realize that section was reserved for white patrons only.
Black patrons were supposed to sit in the balcony seats which cost one cent less than regular seats. When Viola was confronted by staff – who didn’t mention her race, only that she didn’t pay for the seat she was in – she offered to pay the price difference. That wasn’t enough.
Viola was dragged out of the theatre, arrested and spent the night in jail. She was convicted of tax evasion over the penny and fined $26. She fought to reverse the charges all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada with no success.
Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged
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Born in 1914 in Halifax, Viola founded the Halifax Desmond School of Beauty Culture and launched a line of hair and skincare products for black women. Viola was an entrepreneurial spirit in a time of limited opportunities for black women.
After much criticism, Viola shut down her business and moved to Montreal and then New York City. She died in 1965 at 50 years old.
In 2010, the government of Nova Scotia officially granted Viola a pardon. It was the first time a posthumous pardon and apology was granted in Canada for wrong conviction.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Bank of Canada would start looking for a suitable canditate last International Women’s Day, held in March.
Over 26,000 submissions were received. The Bank of Canada narrowed it down to five candidates. The only qualifications were candidates had to be Canadian citizens and dead for at least 25 years.
Poet E. Pauline Johnson, engineer and world’s first female aircraft designer Elsie MacGill, Olympic track and field gold medalist Fanny Rosenfeld, and suffragette Idola Saint-Jean were among those short-listed.
Other women on the list were activist Nellie McClung, author Lucy Maud Montgomery, and artist Emily Carr.