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Who's the woman on Canada's new $10 bill? A Viola Desmond primer

In 1946, Viola Desmond's stand at a segregated Nova Scotia movie theatre made her into a civil-rights icon for black Canadians. On Thursday, the federal government announced that she'll be the new face on the Canadian $10 bill in 2018. Here's what you need to know about her

Finance Minister Bill Morneau accompanies Wanda Robson, the sister of Viola Desmond, at a ceremony in Gatineau, Que., on Dec. 8, 2016, where it was announced Ms. Desmond will be featured on the new $10 bill. ‘It’s a big day to have a woman on a bank note, but it’s an especially big day to have your big sister on a bank note,’ said Ms. Robson. ‘Our family is extremely proud and honoured.’

The $10 bill featuring Viola Desmond 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., on Thursday.

"She represents courage, strength and determination–qualities we should all aspire to every day."

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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 89-year-old sister, Wanda Robson, recalled. "And then this usher came up and told her she couldn't sit there."

A nightclub that was once home to the Roseland Theatre is shown in downtown New Glasgow, N.S., on April 29, 2010.

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."

Nova Scotia lieutenant-governor Mayann Francis signs the official pardon for Viola Desmond as her sister Wanda Robson, left, premier Darrell Dexter and Percy Paris, minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, look on at a ceremony at the legislature in Halifax on April 15, 2010.

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 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.

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When asked what Ms. Desmond would say if she knew she had been chosen, Ms. Robson answered: "'Don't you wish Mom and Dad were here?'"

Her minute of fame

Ms. Desmond was the first historical woman of colour to get her own Heritage Minute, which was played at the Thursday event where the banknote was announced. Actress Kandyse McClure portrayed her in the Heritage Minute, which had been released this past February for Black History Month. "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.

The runners-up

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 (Bobbie) 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.

The other four finalists for the banknote were, clockwise from top left: E. Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake (1861-1913), Mohawk poet; Elsie MacGill (1905-1980); Bobbie Rosenfeld (1904-1969), Olympic athlete; and Idola Saint-Jean (1880-1945), Quebec suffragette.

Other banknotes

The new banknote will cause some other changes to Canada's currency.

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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. Another Canadian will be chosen for the $5 note in a similar manner to Ms. Desmond.

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.

William Lyon Mackenzie King (top) and Sir Robert Borden are being replaced on the $50 and $100 bills.

With reports from Laura Stone and The Canadian Press


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