Viola Desmond as face of $10 bill a priceless honour for N.S.

The civil rights pioneer, who will be the first Canadian woman on the front of a banknote, left a powerful legacy in her home province.

National recognition for civil rights pioneer who left a powerful legacy in her home province

CBC's Asha Tomlinson brings the heartwarming story to life 5:50

News that Viola Desmond will become the face of Canada's $10 bill is being met with elation from members of the black community in Nova Scotia whose rights she boldly fought for 70 years ago.

Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz announced Thursday in Ottawa that the black rights pioneer from Nova Scotia will be the first Canadian woman featured on the front of a Canadian banknote.

"The history of the black people is hidden," said Aleta Williams, who was a longtime friend of Desmond's. "We are starting to get a few things out there.

"They will know that we weren't always able to go into a store, or go into a restaurant, a movie, and sit where we wanted. I want young people to realize that the way has been paved by many people, including Viola Desmond."

Jailed for sitting in wrong seat

Desmond, a businesswoman and beautician, was jailed in 1946 for sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow, N.S., movie theatre. The theatre's policy forced black people to sit upstairs in a balcony.

While other women have graced Canadian currency in the past, no woman besides the Queen has appeared on the front.

Viola Desmond in her studio, circa 1938. (Wanda Robson Collection, Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University/Bank of Canada/Flickr)

Williams, 93, recalled the time she spent with Desmond, who died in 1965.

"When Vi opened her beauty parlour, she was my beautician. I had my hair done every weekend with her," she said. 

Desmond styled Williams's hair for her wedding day in 1949; Williams played music for the graduates of Desmond's beauty school.

A history of prejudice

Williams doesn't remember much talk of political activism in the salon, but she said African-Nova Scotians knew they'd face barriers due to racial prejudice — and that they could overcome them. 

"There was so many racial problems in Halifax," she said. "I was fortunate in that my dad taught us that we were as important as anybody else. Our family believed that what you want, you can get."

Williams's uncle on her father's side was James Robinson Johnston, who was the first African-Nova Scotian lawyer in 1898.

Williams went to business college and later worked for the New Glasgow Evening News for 20 years, recruited to the editorial side of the newspaper. She worked full time while raising her seven children with her family.

'Shocked but elated'

Sunday Miller, executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust in Halifax, said the decision to honour Desmond shows that Canada is being more open about its history — the good and the bad.

"History, you can't change," said Miller. "But sometimes you have to recognize that the things that were done weren't right, and then you have to try and right them."

The president of the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia said he feels personally connected to Desmond, as his grandmother and Desmond's mother were best friends.

"I was shocked but elated at the same time," said Craig Smith of the banknote honour. "Growing up in Halifax, in the same community where she was born ... it gives that personal touch as well."

Viola Desmond was a beautician and businesswoman in Halifax in the mid-1940s. (Submitted by Wanda Robson)

Achievements recognized

Smith added the milestone shows how much progress has been made in recognizing the achievements of Nova Scotia's black community.

"Every time somebody — whether they be in B.C. or Iqaluit or Fogo Island — goes to the store and pulls out a $10 bill, there will be an African-Nova Scotian gracing the face of that bill.

"That's amazing. That's almost unbelievable."

Viola Desmond, right, and her sister Wanda, at the Hi-Hat Club, Boston, circa 1950. (Wanda and Joe Robson Collection)

Sylvia Parris, CEO of the Delmore "Buddy" Daye Learning Institute in Halifax, said she is "thrilled beyond expression" to know that Desmond's achievements will be on display whenever Canadians reach into their wallets. 

"All the time she'll be present for us," said Parris.

A national reminder

Nova Scotia's minister of communities, culture and heritage said the honour will raise Desmond's profile across the rest of the country. 

"It's important because there are many African-Canadians who have contributed to this country, right across the country, and have done some significant things [and their] stories were not told," said Tony Ince.

"It gives me a huge sense of pride because it tells a story that's connected to my community." 

Viola Desmond speaking at graduation, circa 1945. Desmond set up the Desmond School of Beauty Culture. Each year, as many as 15 women graduated from the school, all of whom had been denied admission to whites-only training schools. (Wanda Robson Collection, Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University/Bank of Canada/Flickr)

Other women who have appeared on Canadian currency are also considered civil rights heroes.

Between 2004 and 2012, the $50 bill featured the Famous Five — Emily Murphy, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie Mooney McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards — and feminist icon Thérèse Casgrain.

with files from Sherri Borden Colley