In 1946, Viola Desmond’s 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 country’s currency.
“The Queen is in good company,” Ms. Desmond’s 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.
Here’s a primer on Ms. Desmond’s story and how she came to be the new face of the $10 bill.
Watch: Viola Desmond's sister Wanda Robson calls the design of the new $10 bill "amazing."
Self-made makeup maven
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, Halifax’s 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.
A night at the movies
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 wouldn’t 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 won’t 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 couldn’t sit there.”
On trial for a single penny
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 Scotia’s 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.
‘She is now free’
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. Desmond’s case a miscarriage of justice and said she should never have been charged. “I believe she has to know that she is now free.”
Rosa Parks comparison
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.
But Ms. Robson said in 2016 that her sister didn't 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, 'I'm not the person to go around and be an activist for something. I will speak anywhere, but I can't make it my life's mission,'" Ms. Robson said. "'My life's 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 minute of fame
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.
Fitting the bill
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. Desmond’s portrait is a map including the stretch of Gottingen Street, the city’s north end’s 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.”
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Evan Annett, Laura Stone and The Canadian Press