New $10 bill tells valuable civil rights story, says Viola Desmond's sister

The Viola Desmond $10 bill is set to go into circulation across Canada on Monday. Her sister, Wanda Robson, will be in Winnipeg for the launch.

'Hard to describe the feeling you get when your own sister ... is going to be honoured with a bill'

Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond, holds the new $10 banknote in Halifax in March. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Wanda Robson, the sister of civil rights heroine Viola Desmond, could hardly contain her excitement Friday.

She was packing a bag at her North Sydney home preparing for a trip to Winnipeg for a ceremony to launch the $10 bill that honours her sister.

"Oh, it's a jumble," she said. "But back in my mind it all comes forward and I'm thinking of 'that day' and I'm thinking of Viola. It's very hard to describe the feeling you get when your own sister, a member of your family, is going to be honoured with a bill, with a Canadian bill."

Desmond in her beauty salon in north-end Halifax. (Wanda Robson Collection, Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University/Bank of Canada)

On Monday, Robson, her husband, Joe, and their son and daughter-in-law, will be at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg to witness the launch of the bill that features Desmond's image.

Desmond is the first Canadian woman to be featured alone on a regularly circulating banknote.

The historic event comes 72 years after Desmond, a Halifax businesswoman, was arrested and tossed out of New Glasgow, N.S., movie theatre for sitting in the whites-only section.

She spent one night in jail. Her fight against the injustice she faced helped end segregation in Nova Scotia.

Robson, now 91, is Desmond's youngest sister.  Their sister, Eugenie Parris, 94, lives in a Montreal nursing home. 

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

Bill evokes pride

Robson said the bill evokes pride for her family and the African-Canadian community in general.

She said she wants people to think about the incident itself when they touch the bill "and the ramifications of that act of courage, what it meant, what it escalated to and also the feeling of pride — of pride in her, of pride in themselves."

She said a tourist might see one of the bills for the first time and wonder who is pictured on it.

"Isn't that wonderful to think that people that don't know what happened and what Viola did, the ones that don't know will be educated by this $10 bill."

Wanda Robson, right, sister of Viola Desmond, admires the new $10 banknote with Finance Minister Bill Morneau during an event in Halifax on Thursday, March 8, 2018. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The bill will also feature a map of Halifax's historic north end, near where Desmond grew up and operated her own hair salon and cosmetology school for black women.

Celebrating Viola in Halifax

Meanwhile, several organizations in Halifax's north end are holding events this week to celebrate the bill and Desmond's legacy as a business owner and civil rights pioneer.

"As a businesswoman, she was a trailblazer, she was one of the community members that really stood up for herself," said Marika Parris, events co-ordinator for the North End Business Association.

"She did things when nobody else would. She educated herself and made sure that she came back to the community and taught some community members what she would learn, to kind of pass on her teaching."

A sea of purple Celebrate Viola posters are in storefront windows along Gottingen Street.

Highlights of Celebrate Viola events in Halifax

  • Wed., Nov. 21 - A roundtable discussion on the civil rights movement in Canada and Nova Scotia, featuring African-Nova Scotian activists and scholars, will be held from 6–8 p.m. at the McInnes Room, Dalhousie University Students' Union Building, 6136 University Avenue.
  • Sat., Nov. 24 - North end $10 street sale & pop-up vendors' market featuring African-Canadian vendors from across the region.
  • Sun., Nov. 25 - An interdenominational church service with St. George's Round Church and New Horizons Baptist Church and a luncheon will be held at St. George's, 2222 Brunswick Street, Halifax from noon-3:30 p.m.   

All these events are open to the public and most are free. See www.celebrateviola.ca for a full list of events.

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley

Reporter

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca