Meet Viola Desmond – The First Black Woman Featured on Canada’s Currency

Meet Viola Desmond - The First Black Woman Featured on Canada's Currency

In many ways, Viola Desmond is both the Rosa Parks and Madame C.J. Walker of Canada. So it is befitting that she’s been on a postage stamp, was named as one of five women who should be household names in Canada, and has even had a ferryboat in Halifax, Nova Scotia, named after her.

And now she has also become the new face of Canada’s $10 bill!

The bill featuring her image went into circulation oficially in 2018, the Washington Post reported.

Bill Morneau—Canada’s Minister of Finance—believed it was unfair that although women were an integral part of shaping Canadian history and culture, they remained underrepresented on the country’s currency. The Bank of Canada received upwards of 26,000 submissions for who should grace the $10 bill, and Desmond was selected.

Meet Viola Desmond - The First Black Woman Featured on Canada's CurrencyShe is the first Black individual to have her face on a piece of Canadian currency.

Who Is Viola Desmond

According to Wikipedia, Viola Irene Desmond was born on July 6, 1914 in the predominately Black community of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Growing up, Desmond noted the absence of professional hair and skin-care products for black women and set her sights on addressing the need.

Black women were not allowed to train to become beauticians in Halifax, so she left and received beautician training in Montreal, Atlantic City and one of Madam C. J. Walker‘s beauty schools in New York.

Upon finishing her training, Desmond returned to Halifax to start her own hair salon. Her clients included Portia White and a young Gwen Jenkins, later the first black nurse in Nova Scotia.

Over time, she created a full line of hair and skin products and opened a beauty school – The Desmond School of Beauty Culture – to train other Black women.

Desmond’s case is one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Canadian history and helped start the modern civil rights movement in Canada.

On November 8, 1946 while on a business trip to Sydney to sell her beauty products, Viola Desmond’s car broke down in New Glasgow.

While she waited for repairs, she went to a local movie theater to pass the time.

Racism in Canada was ‘quieter’ than in the United States, where ‘Whites Only’ signs were prominent. She paid for and sat in a theater seat in what was known to be a whites only section. When she was asked to move from the floor seat to the balcony farther back, she refused.

White deputies drug her out of the theater, injuring her hip in the process, and threw her in jail. While sh was never informed of her rights or charges, she was convicted of ‘depriving the government of one cent in tax’.

When she returned home, she mobilized with the  Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) to fight the charges in court.

After losing the fight and being found guilty, Ms. Desmond tried to sue the theater and to have her criminal conviction overturned. Both efforts failed.

But her loss would become Canada’s gain, and spark a Civil Rights movement there. Just 8 years after her arrest, Nova Scotia introduced laws banning segregation in 1954.

Viola Davis was ultimately redeemed, but not while she was alive. Ms. Davis died on February 7, 1965. Canada formally apologized to Ms. Desmond and issued a posthumous pardon in 2010.

Meet Viola Desmond - The First Black Woman Featured on Canada's Currency
Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond, admires the new $10 banknote featuring Desmond, as Finance Minister Bill Morneau looks on during a press conference in Halifax, Thurs. March 8, 2018. – Courtesy of Yahoo Finance

Even though she has transitioned into the ancestral realm, her presence on Canada’s $10 ensures her legacy will be remembered for generations to come.

Learn more about the life and legacy of Viola Desmond, her impact on the Black beauty industry, and what she meant for our movement by checking out one of the books below.

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