A Notable Woman


Canada to put first black woman on the $10 bill

African Heritage Month, February 2018, will be a landmark not only for black Canadians, but for the country as a whole. In December of 2016, Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced that Viola Desmond will be the first black Canadian woman to be featured on a Canadian bank note. Desmond will be taking her rightful place on the $10 bill beginning circulation this year. She was chosen from a short list that included poet E. Pauline Johnson, engineer Elsie MacGill, suffragette Idola Saint-Jean, and Olympic medalist Fanny Rosen.

Viola Desmond is hailed as a civil rights hero of the racial segregation period in Canadian history. Desmond was born in Halifax in 1914, to a black father and a white mother. Following in the footsteps of her barber father, Desmond sought to fill the obvious market hole of hair and skin products for black women. Because black women were not allowed to attend cosmetic school in Halifax, Desmond traveled to Montreal, Atlantic City and New York in order to attend beauty school. She then returned to Halifax to open her own hair salon that catered to black women. The salon quickly became quite successful, and Desmond continued to expand her beauty empire by opening 'The Desmond School of Beauty Culture' so that black students would not have to travel out of the province for cosmetic education. The Desmond School gave black beauticians the skills to open their own businesses and provide jobs for black women in their communities. Desmond also created her own beauty line for black women known as Vi’s Beauty Products.

On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond was travelling through New Glasgow on a business trip to sell her beauty products when her car broke down. The local auto shop where she brought her car told her she would have to wait overnight for it to be fixed. In order to kill time, Desmond went to see the film The Dark Mirror at the local theatre, the Roseland. This theatre reserved the main level for white patrons, while black movie goers were confined to the balcony. Desmond asked for a seat on the main floor, the ticket agent informed Desmond that the theatre did not allow blacks to sit on the main floor, so she bought a ticket for a balcony seat, which was one cent cheaper. However, Desmond entered the theatre and sat in the whites only main floor section in order to actually see the film she had paid to view. An usher then arrived and asked her to go to the balcony, a request Desmond refused. She was then forcibly dragged out of the theatre and jailed overnight, without ever being informed of her rights to bail or a lawyer.

Desmond was charged with tax evasion because she sat in the main floor section while only paying for a balcony ticket, which was 1 cent cheaper, despite the fact she had been refused sale of a main floor ticket. The charge made no reference to the racial discrimination that Desmond had endured. She was fined $26 by the judge, causing protests to erupt from the black community of Nova Scotia. Desmond appealed her case to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, but the original fine was upheld. In 1965, Desmond died without ever receiving acknowledgement from the government of Nova Scotia for her mistreatment. In 2010, Desmond received a free pardon from the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, calling Desmond’s arrest and subsequent trial a miscarriage of justice.

Many in the black Canadian community and beyond are hailing the decision to put Desmond on the $10 bill as a long overdue acknowledgement of black discrimination in Canadian history. With most of the African Heritage Month discussion slanted towards the highly publicized civil rights movements in the United States, many Canadians are unaware of the times in recent history when blacks could not be served at restaurants, enter shops, or sit where they wanted at movies. However, with Desmond’s face on the $10 bill, her story and the story of hundreds of black Canadians will be pulled out of the dark corners of history and put into focus every time the note is used.