89.1 WEMU

Canadian Civil Rights Pioneer Will Appear On Country's $10 Bill

Mar 13, 2018
Originally published on March 16, 2018 11:46 am

Canada's $10 bill is getting a new look.

Viola Desmond, known as the Canadian Rosa Parks, has been named as the first black person and first non-royal woman to be featured on regular Canadian currency.

Desmond was a businesswoman and entrepreneur who ran a salon and a beauty school in Halifax. In 1946, she defied a Nova Scotia movie theater's rule that restricted black patrons to balcony seats. Desmond wanted to sit downstairs, in the whites-only section. Those seats were a penny more than the balcony seat ticket she had bought.

She was asked to move but didn't, and she was eventually dragged out of the theater by police and arrested. Desmond was charged with tax evasion because of the one cent she didn't pay for a downstairs seat.

She fought the charges in a long legal battle. Though she lost that fight (she was eventually pardoned), her case is credited as helping to end racial segregation in Nova Scotia.

"Her legal challenge galvanized the black community in Halifax' north end and paved the way for a broader understanding of the importance of human rights across our country," Finance Minister Bill Morneau said earlier this month, when he appeared with Desmond's sister, Wanda Robson, at the note's unveiling. Desmond died in 1965.

"I finally realized, all those years — people had made me realize just the magnificence and the importance of what she had done," Robson said.

The Bank of Canada chose Desmond after sifting through nominations that came from across Canada in 2016.

"When the bank sent out a call asking for nominations, over 20,000 names came in. And people nominated their sisters, their mothers, their favorite aunts," Barbara Crow of York University in Toronto, told NPR in 2016. The short list included a poet of Aboriginal heritage, the first woman in Canada to receive a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a feminist and pioneer in the fight for suffrage.

The $10 bill with Desmond's portrait comes out later this year. The Bank of Canada will also issue new $5 notes in a few years, followed by new $20, $50 and $100 bills. According to the Bank of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, will be featured on the new $5 bill.

In the U.S., plans to feature abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill remain unclear. In 2016, Obama Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson on the bill. But earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told CNN he was not focused on revamping U.S. currency.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Canada is giving its $10 bill a whole new look. And the woman featured on the note racks up a few firsts. Her name is Viola Desmond, and she once ran a salon and beauty school in Halifax. She is best known as the Canadian Rosa Parks. Her place in Canada's history centered on where she was and was not allowed to sit. Here is Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

BILL MORNEAU: Of course, she's best remembered for that night in 1946 when she wouldn't move from a seat in a movie theater that she had every right to occupy.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The downstairs seats were for whites, but that's where Desmond wanted to go. A video made by a Canadian historical society dramatizes what happened next.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "HERITAGE MINUTES: VIOLA DESMOND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Viola Desmond) One down, please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As ticket clerk) I can't sell downstairs tickets to you people.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Viola Desmond) How dare they?

GREENE: Now, the theater charged Desmond for a balcony seat, but she took a spot downstairs anyway - a seat that cost a penny more. She was asked to move. She did not.

MARTIN: Eventually, the police dragged her out of the theater and arrested her. In a speech to a Canadian historical society, Desmond's sister, Wanda Robson, recalled that night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANDA ROBSON: When the word came to me that my sister had - had been in jail, my first - jail? And I hung my head down. Jail - I didn't want anybody to know.

MARTIN: Desmond was charged with tax evasion because of the 1 cent she didn't pay for a downstairs seat.

GREENE: She fought those charges in a long court battle that she eventually lost. Local, black-owned newspapers covered her story extensively. Again, Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

MORNEAU: Her legal challenge galvanized the black community in Halifax, North End, and paved the way for a broader understanding of the importance of human rights across our country.

MARTIN: Desmond is now recognized as a civil rights icon, credited with sparking the decision to outlaw segregation in her home province of Nova Scotia. But it wasn't until decades after her death in 1965 that she became a household name. In the early 2000s, Wanda Robson started campaigning for Desmond to be remembered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBSON: I finally realize - all those years, people had made me realize just the magnificence and the importance of what she had done.

GREENE: Robson's efforts led to Desmond being pardoned in 2010, the first posthumous pardon in the history of Canada. And now to another first, the first black Canadian and the first non-royal woman to be featured on regular Canadian currency. The $10 dollar bill with Viola Desmond's portrait will come out later this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL GRIMES' "WATER FROM THE SAME SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.