Black rights activist Viola Desmond the new face of Canada’s next $10 banknote

By Jesse Robitaille

Having a Canadian woman featured on a Canadian banknote is great news for the hobby, says the president of the Canadian Paper Money Society.

Black rights activist and Nova Scotia businesswoman Viola Desmond – born in Halifax on July 6, 1914 – has been chosen as the first Canadian woman to be featured on a banknote. On Dec. 8, the Bank of Canada announced its forthcoming $10 bill, which is slated for release in 2018, will depict Desmond, whose portrait is the first of a Canadian woman to be featured on a regularly circulating Bank of Canada note.

The announcement was made at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., where bank Governor Stephen Poloz was joined by Finance Minister Bill Morneau; Minister of Status of Women Patty Hajdu; and one of Desmond’s sisters, Wanda Robson. “It’s a big day to have a woman on a banknote, but it’s an especially big day to have your big sister on a banknote. Our family is extremely proud and honoured,” said Robson, at the Dec. 8 unveiling.

Desmond, an icon of the human rights and freedoms movement in Canada, was chosen by Morneau (in accordance with the Bank of Canada Act) from a short list of five iconic Canadian women. She is perhaps best known for defiantly refusing to leave a “whites-only” area of a movie theatre in 1946; she was subsequently jailed, convicted and fined. The ensuing court case was the first known legal challenge against racial segregation brought forth by a Black woman in Canada.


James Williston, President of the Canadian Paper Money Society, said he welcomes the new face of Canada’s $10 bill with open hands. “I think it’s big that the Bank of Canada took this initiative to recognize women,” he said. “Women are generally under-represented, and I think this will raise awareness of the achievements of Canadian women.”

And as a collector, Williston said he’s excited for a new series of banknotes. “As a collector, any time there’s a new issue of any sort – bill or coin – it gets collectors interested, especially with this historical meaning to it.” Williston added the public consultation process was a good way to promote numismatics to the general public.“It helps the hobby of numismatics as a whole,” he said. “It might get people interested in starting their own little collection, and it might even get more women interested in the hobby.”

According to the central bank, its new $10 note will reflect the broader themes of social justice and the struggle for rights and freedoms. It will be the first note in the next series of banknotes.

To continue celebrating iconic Canadians, the next note – a $5 bill that’s expected to follow “a few years after” 2018 – will also feature a “banknote-able” Canadian. The bank has confirmed it will launch another consultation process to seek input from Canadians on the design of the new $5 note.

Since Desmond will be featured on the new $10 note and another iconic Canadian will be featured on the new $5 note, Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and our first francophone Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier will be honoured on the country’s higher-value banknotes. This change will take place when the higher-value notes are redesigned for the next series. These changes mean former prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sir Robert Borden will no longer be portrayed on Canada’s banknotes. The $20 denomination will continue to feature reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II.


The other four iconic Canadian women on the short list were: Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913); Elizabeth MacGill (1905-1980); Fanny Rosenfeld (1905-1969); and Idola Saint-Jean (1880-1945).

Choosing Desmond was the final step in the campaign to determine which iconic Canadian woman would appear on Canada’s new $10 banknote. Last spring, an open call for nominations launched by the Bank of Canada yielded more than 26,300 submissions from across Canada. More than 460 eligible candidates were narrowed down to a list of five candidates by an independent advisory council of eminent Canadian leaders from several fields.


From her early days as a school teacher, Desmond’s ambition was to start her own hairdressing business; however, there were many barriers, the first of which was finding training. Because beauty schools in Halifax restricted Black women from admission, she travelled to Montreal, New York and New Jersey for various courses. She eventually received a diploma from the renowned Apex College of Beauty Culture and Hairdressing in Atlantic City, N.J.

In 1937, after travelling back to Halifax, Desmond established Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture, which became a gathering place for women in the community. Within a few years, she established the Desmond School of Beauty Culture and attracted students from across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec. She also manufactured and marketed Vi’s Beauty Products, which generated orders from across Nova Scotia.


On Nov. 8, 1946, Desmond was on a business trip to Sydney, N.S., when her car broke down in New Glasgow. While waiting for repairs, she decided to see a movie at the nearby Roseland Theatre.Unaware of the theatre’s policy of restricting Black people to the upper balcony, Desmond handed the cashier money and asked for “one down please.” The cashier handed her a balcony ticket, but when she entered the theatre, an usher informed her she would need to go upstairs.

Thinking it was a mistake, Desmond returned to the cashier and asked to exchange her ticket.

The cashier refused, stating, “I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.”

Realizing she was being denied because of her race, Desmond courageously walked back inside and took a seat downstairs; however, the theatre manager confronted her and eventually called the police. Desmond was forcibly ejected, arrested, charged and convicted for failure to pay the theatre’s one cent tax, which was required for the downstairs seat.

Desmond was unsuccessful in her efforts to reverse her criminal conviction; however, her story was a milestone human rights case in Canada. Because the case was framed as tax evasion, the real issue of racism was veiled by procedural technicalities. If Desmond had not taken further action, the surviving trial records would’ve left no clue about the true significance of the case: Desmond was denied the downstairs ticket because of her race.


On April 15, 2010, Desmond received a posthumous free pardon from the government of Nova Scotia. The pardon was granted by then-Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Mayann Francis, who was the first Black Nova Scotian and only the second Black person in Canada to hold this office. The pardon was accompanied by a public declaration and apology from then-Premier Darrell Dexter, who said no charges should’ve been laid and added Desmond’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

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