Nova Scotia

Viola Desmond banknote shines spotlight on Halifax's historic north end

The new Canadian banknote honouring Viola Desmond had a satisfying surprise for many African-Nova Scotians: an unexpected shout-out to Halifax's historic north end, home to one of Canada's oldest black communities.

$10 bills unveiled last week include map of community

A map of Halifax's historic north end can be seen to the left of Viola Desmond's face on the new $10 bill. (CBC)

The new Canadian banknote honouring Viola Desmond had a satisfying surprise for many African-Nova Scotians: an unexpected shout-out to Halifax's historic north end, home to one of Canada's oldest black communities.

"I'm ecstatic about it," said Irvine Carvery, a prominent north-ender who was thrilled to discover when the $10 bill was unveiled last week that it included a map of the community he has lived in his whole life.

"I just think it's a wonderful way to advertise the north end and the people that live in the north end."

Civil rights icon

The bill cements Desmond's status as a civil rights icon for her refusal to leave the whites-only section of a movie theatre while visiting New Glasgow, N.S., in 1946.

But behind her portrait, the banknote features a historic map of Halifax's north end that pays tribute to another aspect of her pioneering legacy — her community and her entrepreneurship.

The map includes the stretch of Gottingen Street, the north end's main drag, where the beautician opened a salon as part of a business that would eventually expand into her own line of cosmetics and a beauty school, which allowed her to mentor black women from across the country.

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Strength, resiliency

"This historic community in Halifax was where Viola Desmond lived and worked, and served as a source of invaluable support during her struggle for justice," the Bank of Canada said in its materials on the new banknote.

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

"This artistic rendering of a historic map shows the waterfront, Citadel and Gottingen Street, the thoroughfare where Vi's Studio of Beauty Culture was located."

Sylvia Parris, CEO of the Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute, which advocates for education issues affecting African-Nova Scotians, said Desmond's story is emblematic of the historic Halifax community's strength, resiliency and self-sufficiency.

North-end identity

"I think this is actually a way for the [north end] … to be seen as having its kind of own identity," said Parris.

"When people are looking at the money and kind of having a conversation … they can start to look more deeply into north end Halifax and learn more about the community."

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

The north end was home to Africville, which was founded in the 1800s with many former slaves and Black Loyalists. But residents were forced to relocate when the community was ordered razed by Halifax council in the late 1960s, and many moved into public housing elsewhere in the north end.

Inspiration for young black entrepreneurs

Historically, the north end has been populated by black-owned businesses, Carvery said, but many of them shut down in the wake of the civil rights movement that Desmond helped spur as an unintended consequence of desegregation.

"I would hope that [the bill] is going to inspire … young black entrepreneurs to take a look at that whole history of black business ownership and inspire them," said Carvery, 65, a former chair of Halifax's school board.

Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond. (Wanda Robson)

He said the black community's entrepreneurial history has particular resonance as the north end reckons with the forces of gentrification, which have transformed the neighbourhood in recent years with an influx of new business owners.

The commercial shift has led some to call on new stores to hire longtime north-end residents, but Carvery said he hopes African-Nova Scotians will take after Desmond and start their own businesses so they can employ other members of the community.

'In your face'

"I think [Desmond's story] harkens back to a Gottingen Street that we'd all like to see again," said Patty Cuttell-Busby, executive director of the North End Business Association. "One where there is lots of diversity in the businesses that are owned in the area."

Cuttell-Busby said she hopes Desmond's role as a national ambassador for the north end will be a boon to businesses in the area, while also inspiring the next generation of black owners.

But in addition to the bill's empowering message, Carvery — who was among those forced to relocate from Africville — said he sees the monetary spotlight on the north end as a rebuke to a city that has long neglected the district, and at times, mistreated its black residents.

The city offered a formal apology to Africville in 2010 as part of a multimillion-dollar settlement with former residents, but Carvery said the forced displacement still casts a long shadow over the black community's relationship with municipal government.

"For the north end to end up on the $10 bill is kind of like, 'In your face,"' he said.