A new $10 bill featuring Desmond was unveiled by Bill Morneau and Stephen Poloz, Governor of Bank of Canada.
The first vertically oriented bank note was issued in Canada and has 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 side.
“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 praised the resolve of Desmond who stood up at a time when discrimination was fierce.
“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 new bill was applauded by many.
Wanda Robson, Desmond’s sister, was absolutely delighted to see her sister on Canadian currency.
“I was speechless,” she said describing her reaction to the banknote. “It’s beyond what I ever thought. It’s beautiful.”
Desmond made history as the first black person and the first nonroyal woman to feature on a regularly circulating Canadian bank note.
“It’s a long-awaited sense of belonging for the African Canadian community,” said Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.
“The launch of the bill sends people of African descent the message that Canada is finally accepting us. We belong.”
The bill shows a growing admiration for Desmond who refused to leave the whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre on Nov. 8, 1946.
While her civil disobedience was remarkable, Grosse said racial segregation and systemic discrimination was once commonplace in Nova Scotia.
“It’s a familiar story,” he said. “It’s something that a lot of African Canadians once experienced, so they can sympathize and they can connect with it.”
That’s what makes the new $10 bill such a powerful act of acceptance, Grosse said.
“It’s a remarkable story. It really shows the progression of society, and that’s one of the reasons why it seems to have gained this groundswell of interest over the last couple years,” he said.
Lindell Smith, a representative of the north end on Halifax council, stated that Desmond is an example for African Nova Scotian community and all Canadians.
“I have a daughter who’s eight, and she’ll be able to look at a banknote and see a woman who reflects her, an African Nova Scotian woman who stood up for her rights and now is being commemorated on a bank note,” he said. “You can’t get any better than that in terms of historical value and importance.”
Isaac Saney, a senior instructor of black studies at Dalhousie University, said many Canadians are unaware that slavery and segregation existed here, and often know more about U.S. civil rights icons than those in Canada.
“We know more about Rosa Parks than Viola Desmond,” he said. “We know more about Martin Luther King than perhaps we know about W.P. Oliver,” he said referring to social justice advocate and reverend Dr. William Pearly Oliver.
But the new bank note could change that, helping Canadians learn about civil rights north of the border, he said.
“When young people see Viola Desmond they’ll be able to ask ‘Who is this particular person,’ so it becomes a teachable moment,” Saney said.
“Viola Desmond carried out a singular act of courage,” Saney said. “There was no movement behind her, she was ahead of the times.”
The new bill is expected to enter circulation at the end of the year.
Robson refused to return her bill, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Morneau told her, “You just can’t spend it between now and the end of the year.”
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