Friday, February 8

Right on the Money by @JanaRichards_

"Big change can start with small moments of dignity and bravery."

On November 19, 2018, the Bank of Canada unveiled the new Canadian ten-dollar bill. This new bill is significant because of who’s on it.

Viola Desmond is on one side of the bill and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg is on the other side. 
In 1946, Viola Desmond was a thirty-two-year-old business woman living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Desmond was a beautician, owner of Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture and a beauty school for black women at a time when few women owned their own businesses. She travelled the province on business, also an unusual thing for a woman to do in 1946.

On one of her business trips in November 1946, she was in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and decided to take in a movie at the Roseland Theatre. Unaware of the theatre’s policy of restricting Black people to the upper balcony, Desmond purchased her ticket and made her way to the main floor. The usher told her that the ticket was for the balcony and that she would need to go upstairs. Thinking there had been a mistake, Desmond returned to the cashier and asked to exchange her ticket. The cashier refused, stating “I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.” As soon as she realized that she was being denied seating on the basis of race, Desmond courageously walked back inside and took a seat downstairs. The theatre manager then confronted her, and when she didn’t move, he called the police. Desmond was forcibly ejected, arrested, charged and then convicted for failure to pay the extra penny in theatre tax required for the downstairs seat.

Viola Desmond's younger sister Wanda Robson at the unveiling of the new ten-dollar bill.
Desmond was unsuccessful in her subsequent efforts to quash her criminal conviction, but her story resulted in a milestone human rights case in Canada. Since the case was framed as tax evasion, the real issue of racism had been shrouded by procedural technicalities. If she had not taken further action, the surviving trial records would have left no clue to the true significance of the case—that she had been denied the downstairs ticket because of her race.

She died in 1965 at age 50. In 2010, Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon and a public apology. Vindication, however late.


Having Viola Desmond’s picture on the ten-dollar bill allows her story to be told. I had no idea there had been segregation in Canada. I feel ashamed that I didn’t know. And I’m embarrassed that I never heard of Viola Desmond before. Like most Canadians, I’ve heard of Rosa Parks. I probably know more about American history than I do about the history of my own country. Yet Viola Desmond took her stand in the Roseland Theatre some nine years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus.

I haven’t had a chance to hold one of the new ten-dollar bills in my hand yet, but I can’t wait to see it up close. From now on, whenever I pay for something with a ten, I’ll think of her story. And the hope is that a lot of other Canadians do, too. Thanks for being a trailblazer, Viola!

4 comments:

  1. Oh, Jana, thank you for sharing this. I'm so glad to see her picture there. Like so much of what happens in our country, too, it's probably too little, too late, but it's the Right Thing nevertheless.

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    1. Isn't it a great story? I'm glad she finally got justice. It's too bad she didn't see it in her lifetime.

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  2. this is very cool - thanks for sharing, jana!

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    1. Thanks Kristi. BTW, the building you see on the opposite side of the bill from Viola Desmond's picture is the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. It's the only national museum of Canada outside of the capital city of Ottawa, and it's right here in my city of Winnipeg. It's a very cool looking building and has changed the skyline of the city. But more importantly it tells some great stories about human rights, in Canada and around the world. Right now there's an exhibition about Nelson Mandala. They have a replica of his prison cell at Robin Island that you can go into. I haven't seen the exhibit in person yet, just on TV. But the prison cell looks tiny. It's hard to believe he spent so many years in such a small space.

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