Nova Scotia

New $10 bill featuring civil rights activist Viola Desmond debuts today

In 1946, Viola Desmond went to jail for standing up for the rights of black people in Nova Scotia. Today, the Halifax civil rights activist is being honoured as the new $10 bill featuring her face is unveiled.

Desmond refused to give up seat at N.S. movie theatre in 1946, years before Rosa Parks's act of defiance

Wanda Robson, the sister of Viola Desmond, smiles as the new $10 featuring her sister Viola Desmond is unveiled. (Canadian Press)

A woman who stood up for the rights of black people in Nova Scotia and went to jail for it was honoured Thursday, as the new $10 bill featuring her image was unveiled. 

The event celebrating Viola Desmond was set to begin around 12:30 p.m. AT at the Halifax Central Library, but a power outage delayed it.

Her sister, Wanda Robson, was among those who attended a 2016 ceremony where it was announced Desmond had been chosen from a short list of other noted Canadian women to be featured on the currency.

"I say thank you, thank you, thank you," said Robson. "Our family will go down in history — in history, imagine that."

On Thursday, Robson helped unveil the design of Canada's new $10 bill.

"Is this mine?" she asked Finance Minister Bill Morneau. When he offered to hold it for her, she joked, "You're not getting it."

After the unveiling, Morneau took the podium.

"I want to start by saying that you need to know that this note is not yet in circulation until the end of the year, but Wanda is keeping hers," Morneau said, smiling. "It tells you about the balance of power in this country."

On Nov. 8, 1946, Desmond went to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow while her car was getting fixed.

Desmond, 32, was dragged out of the theatre by police and jailed for defiantly sitting in the "whites only" section of a film house. Black people could only sit in the balcony of the theatre. 

The civil rights activist was convicted of defrauding the province of a one-penny tax, the difference in tax between a downstairs and upstairs ticket, even though Desmond had asked to pay the difference.

She was released after paying a $20 fine and $6 in court costs. She appealed her conviction but lost.

Desmond is often described as Canada's Rosa Parks, even though Desmond's act of defiance happened nine years before Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.

A portrait of Viola Desmond, circa 1940. The new Canadian $10 bill bears her image. (Communications Nova Scotia/Bank of Canada/Flickr)

Desmond is the first black person — and the first non-royal woman — to appear on a regularly circulating Canadian bank note. (Agnes MacPhail, Canada's first female member of Parliament, is one of four people featured on a commemorative $10 bill created for Canada 150.)

"It's a long-awaited sense of belonging for the African-Canadian community," said Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.

"The launch of the bill sends people of African descent the message that Canada is finally accepting us. We belong."

According to the Bank of Canada, Desmond's court case was the first known legal challenge against racial segregation brought forward by a black woman in Canada.

It took 63 years for Nova Scotia to issue a posthumous apology and pardon to Desmond, who died in 1965. (Wanda Robson)

Segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia in 1954, in part because of the publicity generated by Desmond's case.

"Viola Desmond carried out a singular act of courage," said Isaac Saney, a senior instructor of black studies at Dalhousie University. "There was no movement behind her. She was ahead of the times." 

It would be 63 years after her conviction before Nova Scotia issued Desmond, who died in 1965, a posthumous apology and pardon.

Despite this, Desmond's story received little attention until recent years.

Her legacy is being increasingly recognized. Her name now graces a Halifax Transit harbour ferry, a Canada Post stamp, and there are plans for streets named in her honour in Montreal and Halifax and a park in Toronto.

With files from The Canadian Press


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.