'The Queen is in good company:' New $10 bill with civil rights advocate launched

Canada's new $10 bill officially went into circulation Monday, breaking new ground in more ways than one.

Viola Desmond was arrested after refusing to leave whites-only section of theatre in 1946

The banknote features civil rights activist Viola Desmond — the first Canadian woman to be profiled on a regularly circulating banknote. The Winnipeg-based Canadian Museum for Human Rights is on the other side. (Bank of Canada)

Canada's new $10 bill officially went into circulation Monday, breaking new ground in more ways than one.

The banknote is the first vertically oriented bill in Canada and the first regularly circulating banknote to feature a Canadian woman, civil rights advocate Viola Desmond, on the front.

"The Queen is in good company," Desmond's 91-year-old sister Wanda Robson said with a smile at the bill's official launch held at the Canadian Museum For Human Rights on Monday.

Desmond was arrested after refusing to leave a whites-only section of a theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., in 1946.

Viola Desmond: From civil disobedience to the face of the new $10 bill

5 years ago
Duration 1:48
Featured Video"Every Canadian of the next generation, they'll all know who Viola Desmond is." Jonny Harris learns more about Viola Desmond in East Preston, N.S.

It was 63 years later — after Desmond's death — that the Nova Scotia government issued an apology and pardon.

"It is one thing to accomplish great things when the wind is at your back, but another altogether when society is set up to sit you down," John Young, chief executive officer of the Canadian Museum For Human Rights, said at the launch ceremony at the museum.

The museum itself is featured on the back of the bill, and the banknote has other human rights elements — an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and an eagle feather that the Bank of Canada says is in recognition of the rights of Indigenous people.

'Well it's about time'

Young recounted coming across a Grade 8 student at the museum who saw a picture of Desmond and thought it was Rosa Parks — a United States activist who was arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a white man almost a decade after Desmond's arrest.

To Young, it was a sign Canadians need to learn more about their own history.

"I hope as more Canadians get to know Viola Desmond, they will also learn the other stories of racism, oppression and injustice that mark Canada's own human rights journey. Achieving rights for all is a process and we are not there yet."

Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond, holds the new $10 banknote in Halifax on Thursday, March 8, 2018. The civil rights icon is the first Canadian woman to be featured on a regularly circulating bank note. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Desmond was selected to be on the bill after an open call for nominations and a public opinion survey on the Bank of Canada website.

Robson said her sister would be proud to see the new currency.

"She would say, to herself, 'Well it's about time that somebody recognized what I did and what so many other people did in their own way,' " Robson said.

"She would say that there's so many other people — just ordinary people — who make a change ... a little step here, a little step there."

Watch Viola's sister Wanda Robson spend the first new $10:

Wanda Robson is the first to use the new $10

5 years ago
Duration 0:47
Featured VideoWanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond makes the first purchase using the new $10