Viola Desmond featured on new $10 bill

African-Nova Scotian was arrested in 1946 for sitting in whites-only section of theatre

Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Wanda Robson and Stephen Poloz moments after unveiling the new bill at Halifax Central Library.   Karla Renic

International Women’s Day was celebrated this year with the unveiling of a new $10 bill featuring the first portrait of a black and non-royal woman on Canadian money.

The new bill is vertical and features Canada’s prominent civil rights activist Viola Desmond on the front.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen S. Poloz unveiled the new bill on Thursday at the Halifax Central Library, with the help of Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson.

“When I first saw it, I didn’t understand,” said Robson. “I saw Viola and thought ‘what is she doing there’ and I turned it around and saw it’s a $10 bill.”

The new bill also features the Museum of Human Rights on the back.

“It was Viola who pointed the way towards equality,” said Morneau. “It is no wonder then, that on the back of the note, we chose to feature the Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, as well as an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Desmond, who was born in Halifax, was educated as a teacher and became a successful entrepreneur. In 1946, she bought a ticket at a movie theatre in New Glasgow and took a seat on the main floor. Black people were not allowed to sit in that section, but she refused to move to the balcony.

After she was dragged out of the theatre, Desmond was charged with defrauding due to the one-cent difference in tax between the main floor and the balcony seating. She tried to appeal the charges but was unsuccessful and paid the fine.

Wanda Robson poses with the $10 bill featuring a portrait of her sister, Viola Desmond.   Karla Renic

Robson said she was proud of her sister’s legacy and honoured that their family will be remembered in history.

“This shows how one woman’s actions can make a difference,” said Robson, who brought her husband and grandchildren to Thursday’s event.

Although the new bills will not be in circulation until later this year, Robson was given her own bill and held it tightly, constantly admiring her sister’s portrait.

After Desmond died, Robson continued to educate and share her sister’s story. Robson said that it was when she attended university, at age 75, and listened to discussions on racism when she truly understood the meaning of her sister’s actions.

Wanda Robson presents a children’s book, The ABCs of Viola Desmond, written and illustrated by students at William King Elementary School.   Karla Renic

Morneau said he is proud of the new bill.

“I hope Canadians feel the way I did when I saw the bill,” he said. “I felt proud to be in a country where we can celebrate a woman who broke boundaries by rejecting the notion of her time that black Canadians weren’t equal.”

The $10 bank note is just a start in the renovation of other bills, as a new bank note design for each denomination will be issued every few years. The next bank note to be released will be the $5 bill.

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