N.S. civil rights activist Viola Desmond to be first Canadian woman on banknote
Published Thursday, December 8, 2016 7:37AM AST Last Updated Thursday, December 8, 2016 4:02PM AST
GATINEAU, Que. -- It had been some time since Viola Desmond last visited the cinema.
The hairdresser and entrepreneur opted to sit close to the front of the theatre; her poor eyesight made it difficult to see from the balcony, the section where black people were expected to sit in those days.
"She wanted to see a movie," Wanda Robson, 89, said Thursday as she recalled the historic day in 1946 when her older sister chose to defy the rules and sit in the Nova Scotia theatre's "whites-only" section.
Given all that followed, Robson said, Desmond would have been honoured to see herself on the $10 bill -- a tribute that will make its debut in 2018 when she becomes the first Canadian woman to be celebrated on the face of her country's currency.
"Viola Desmond's own story reminds all of us that big change can start with moment of dignity and bravery," Finance Minister Bill Morneau said as he unveiled the choice during a news conference in Gatineau, Que.
"She represents courage, strength and determination--qualities we should all aspire to every day."
Desmond is often described as the Canadian version of Rosa Parks, although her act of defiance and subsequent arrest took place much earlier and in a much more spontaneous way than the historic 1955 events of Montgomery, Ala.
She had found herself with some rare time off from her business running a barbershop and hairdressing salon with her husband, and decided to catch a movie at what turned out to be a racially segregated theatre in New Glasgow, N.S.
"She said, 'I stretched out and I was just getting comfortable, and I thought, "Oh, this is nice, and I won't worry about anything,"' and then this usher came up and told her she couldn't sit there," Robson said in an interview.
Desmond was arrested and fined. Her decision to fight the charges in court inspired later generations of black people in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada. The Nova Scotia government granted her a posthumous pardon in 2010.
Despite long-standing comparisons to Parks, the U.S. civil rights hero who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, Desmond's story received little attention until recent years.
Isaac Saney, a senior instructor of black studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, hopes Canadians will come to learn that their country's history includes dark chapters about colonialism, slavery and institutionalized racism.
"It's a very positive thing in terms of honouring someone who was a trailblazer, and until recently was forgotten within the Canadian struggle for human rights," Saney said of the decision to honour Desmond.
Unlike Parks, who was part of an well-organized protest movement seeking its day in court, Desmond's act was a singular act of courage, he added.
"When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat, an entire mass civil rights movement was ignited" -- a "militant approach to politics" that did not exist in 1946.
Desmond would have wanted no part of that anyway, said Robson.
Civil rights activists pressed Desmond to take up their cause, but she preferred instead to make it her "life's mission" to be a hairdresser and mentor to other black women who were often turned away from other salons, Robson said.
Thursday's short list included 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 Rosenfeld, a track and field athlete.
Famous Five activist Nellie McClung, the Alberta suffragette who fought in the 1920s for women to be legally recognized as persons in Canada, was for many Canadians the most obvious omission from the short list.
There were more than 26,000 submissions from the public, which was later whittled down to 461 eligible nominees who had Canadian citizenship and had been dead for at least 25 years.
During Thursday's news conference, Morneau was asked when Canada might see a female Bank of Canada governor or federal finance minister. Perhaps featuring a woman on the $10 bill is a first step towards just that milestone, he responded.
"We think these important steps can be the precursor for young women and women who are active today thinking about all potential roles open to them."
Robson, asked the same question, had a different timeline in mind: "Why not when his term is over?"
The bank plans to shake up other notes in 2018 as well. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, will move from the $10 to a higher denomination, as will Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who is currently on the $5.
That spot will go to another "note-able" Canadian, to be chosen in due course in much the same way Desmond was selected.
Former prime ministers Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King will be dropped from the $100 and the $50. The $20 bill, which has long featured the Queen, will remain unchanged.
There's no reason the $5 couldn't also feature a woman, said Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu.
"I would think it would be good to have more, and to have a diversity of women that shows their contributions to Canada."