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Viola Desmond takes her place as Canadian civil rights icon with new $10 bill

Last Updated Mar 8, 2018 at 2:30 pm EDT

Viola Desmond’s trailblazing act of defiance – overlooked for decades by most Canadians – was honoured Thursday in a Halifax ceremony that cemented her new status as a civil rights icon.

A new $10 bill featuring Desmond was unveiled by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz.

The purple polymer bill – the first vertically oriented bank note issued in Canada – includes a portrait of Desmond and a historic map of north end Halifax on one side and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg on the other.

“It was long past time for a bank note to feature an iconic Canadian woman,” Poloz told the large crowd that had gathered at the Halifax Central Library on International Women’s Day despite a blustery snowstorm and flickering power.

Morneau said the deck was “doubly stacked” against Desmond because of her gender and the colour of her skin. He said she stood up for what she believed in and helped make the country a better place.

Desmond becomes the first black person – and the first non-royal woman – on a regularly circulating Canadian bank note.

“It’s a long-awaited sense of belonging for the African Canadian community,” said Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.

“The launch of the bill sends people of African descent the message that Canada is finally accepting us. We belong.”

The bill marks a growing recognition of Desmond’s refusal to leave the whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre on Nov. 8, 1946 – nearly a decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama – and the seminal role it played in Canada’s civil rights movement.

While her civil disobedience was remarkable, Grosse said racial segregation and systemic discrimination was once commonplace in Nova Scotia.

“It’s a familiar story,” he said. “It’s something that a lot of African Canadians once experienced, so they can sympathize and they can connect with it.”

That’s what makes the new $10 bill such a powerful act of acceptance, Grosse said.

“It’s a remarkable story. It really shows the progression of society, and that’s one of the reasons why it seems to have gained this groundswell of interest over the last couple years,” he said.

Grosse said fear of differences and diversity remains, but those issues can now be discussed openly, and people are able to openly discuss problems.

“It shows that society has come a long way from where it was. A lot of the times those things would have happened in shadows and they would have been ignored in the past,” he said. “Now we’re having frank discussions about what we can do about it. That’s a step in the right direction.”

Desmond’s story went largely untold for a half-century, but in recent years she has been featured on a stamp, and her name graces a Halifax harbour ferry. There are plans for a park in Toronto and streets in Montreal and Halifax to bear her name.

Chelsea Clinton tweeted Tuesday about her story after the Bank of Canada shared a short video earlier this month of Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson, reacting emotionally to a sneak peek of the bill.

“This is beyond lovely,” Clinton tweeted on Tuesday. “Thank you Wanda Robson. Honored to share Viola Desmond’s story in #ShePersistedAroundTheWorld & can’t wait to see the new Canadian $10 bill on my visit to Toronto next month!”

Isaac Saney, a senior instructor of black studies at Dalhousie University, said many Canadians are unaware that slavery and segregation existed here, and often know more about U.S. civil rights icons than those in Canada.

“We know more about Rosa Parks than Viola Desmond,” he said. “We know more about Martin Luther King than perhaps we know about W.P. Oliver,” he said referring to social justice advocate and reverend Dr. William Pearly Oliver.

But the new bank note could change that, helping Canadians learn about civil rights north of the border, he said.

“When young people see Viola Desmond they’ll be able to ask ‘Who is this particular person,’ so it becomes a teachable moment,” Saney said.

Desmond’s story started with a business trip 71 years ago. Desmond, a beautician and entrepreneur from north end Halifax who sold her own line of cosmetics, was headed to Sydney, N.S., when her car broke down. Stuck in New Glasgow overnight, she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre.

The segregated theatre relegated black patrons to the balcony, while floor seating was reserved for whites. Desmond, who was shortsighted and could not see properly from the back, sat in the floor section and refused to leave.

She was dragged out of the theatre by police, arrested, thrown in jail for 12 hours and fined.

“Viola Desmond carried out a singular act of courage,” Saney said. “There was no movement behind her, she was ahead of the times.”

It would take 63 years for Nova Scotia to issue Desmond, who died in 1965, a posthumous apology and pardon.