Day 6

Halifax's north end neighbourhood hopes the new $10 bill will shed light on its history

When Viola Desmond was arrested for refusing to leave the ‘whites only’ section of a movie theatre, the north end community raised money to support her. Now, the neighbourhood is featured behind her on the $10 bill.

'A lot of new people coming in don’t understand the attachment long-standing residents have to this community'

Archival photo of Gottingen street in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Nova Scotia Archives)

This week, civil rights activist Viola Desmond will replace John A. MacDonald on the $10 bill.

Behind her portrait, you'll see a map of Halifax's north end — home to one of Canada's oldest black communities.

That's where Desmond owned a thriving hair salon and beauty product business.

There is so much left to be written about our history that is just starting to make its way into our curriculums.- Melinda Daye, the former chair of the Halifax Regional School Board

According to her youngest sister, Wanda Robson, Viola left the north end a few times, but always found her way back.

"She wanted to go where she would be understood."

The north end was that place for many black Nova Scotians — a sort of sanctuary in an otherwise divided city.

"There were so many prominent black people here, homeowners, business owners, families," said Rodney Small, who runs a grassroots group focused on community engagement in the north end.

Viola Desmond (left) with some of the young people she mentored through her beauty parlour in Halifax. (Nova Scotia Archives)


For many the north end still is that place of refuge, but it's changed drastically since Desmond lived there. 

In the early 2000s, new businesses started moving in — coffee shops, bars, yoga studios, condos — most of them owned by white entrepreneurs unfamiliar with the neighbourhood's past. That's left some residents feeling uncomfortable in the very place that their ancestor's went to feel safe.

"In fact, we don't have a single black business operating in our community now. It's sad, and it speaks to a sense of displacement," said Small.

Travel magazines now call it one of the 'coolest' neighbourhoods in the Maritimes — a label that doesn't sit particularly well with its long-standing residents.

Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond, holding the new $10 bank note during a press conference in Halifax on Thursday, March 8, 2018. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

"To me, it's always been the coolest neighbourhood," said Small. "It's where all our love came from."

Melinda Daye, the former chair of the Halifax Regional School Board, says that feeling of being pushed out is real.

"We have people walking up to our doorstops, putting flyers in our mailboxes or leaving messages on our voicemail saying 'we want to talk to you about selling us your house,'" said Daye. 

It was happening so often, she says, she decided to respond to one of the messages. "I told them, 'I know the quality of life in the north end, that's why I live here, that's why my parents lived here, that's why my grandparents lived here.'"

"I asked them not to do this. To respect us as homeowners, as people who want to live in this community and love this community."

Preserving history

Part of what makes this neighbourhood unique is that a number of its residents were displaced from other black communities — many which no longer exist. 

"Some of us came through the underground railroad. Some of us came from Africville, which the city demolished," said Small. "This is the only place we know as home. So to be able to preserve that becomes extremely important."

The Bank of Canada says it chose to include a map of the north end on the bill because it "served as a source of invaluable support during [Viola's] struggle for justice." 

Melinda Daye is the former chair of the Halifax Regional School Board. She's lived her entire life in the north end of Halifax. (HRSB)

And African Nova Scotians who still live there hope it inspires more people to learn about that history.

"I think it becomes an opportunity for teachers to start welcoming these conversations into our classrooms," said Small.

"There is so much left to be written about our history that is just starting to make its way into our curriculums," said Daye.

"In the end, we're a people that embrace. We're a people that get along despite all the barriers and challenges we've faced."

To hear more from Melinda Daye and Rodney Small, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.