GATINEAU, Que.—It had been some time since Viola Desmond last visited the cinema.
The hairdresser and entrepreneur opted to sit close to the front of the theatre as her poor eyesight made it difficult to see from the balcony—the section where black people were expected to sit in those days.
“She wanted to see a movie,” Wanda Robson, 89, said yesterday as she recalled the historic day in 1946 when her older sister chose to defy the rules and sit in the Nova Scotia theatre’s “whites-only” section.
Given all that followed, Robson said, Desmond would have been honoured to see herself on the $10 bill—a tribute that will make its debut in 2018 when she becomes the first Canadian woman to be celebrated on the face of her country’s currency.
“Viola Desmond’s own story reminds all of us that big change can start with moment of dignity and bravery,” Finance minister Bill Morneau said as he unveiled the choice during a news conference in Gatineau, Que.
“She represents courage, strength, and determination—qualities we should all aspire to every day,” he noted.
Desmond often is described as the Canadian version of Rosa Parks, although her act of defiance and subsequent arrest took place much earlier and in a much more spontaneous way than the historic 1955 events of Montgomery, Ala.
She had found herself with some rare time off from her business running a barbershop and hairdressing salon with her husband, and decided to catch a movie at what turned out to be a racially-segregated theatre in New Glasgow, N.S.
“She said, ‘I stretched out and I was just getting comfortable, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is nice, and I won’t worry about anything,’ and then this usher came up and told her she couldn’t sit there,” Robson recalled in an interview.
Desmond was arrested and fined. Her decision to fight the charges in court inspired later generations of black people in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada.
The Nova Scotia government granted her a posthumous pardon in 2010.
Despite long-standing comparisons to Parks, the U.S. civil rights hero who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, Desmond’s story received little attention until recent years.
Isaac Saney, a senior instructor of black studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, hopes Canadians will come to learn their country’s history includes dark chapters about colonialism, slavery, and institutionalized racism.
“It’s a very positive thing in terms of honouring someone who was a trailblazer, and until recently was forgotten within the Canadian struggle for human rights,” Saney said of the decision to honour Desmond.
The bank plans to shake up other notes in 2018, as well. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, will move from the $10 to a higher denomination, as will Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who currently is on the $5.
That spot will go to another “note-able” Canadian, to be chosen in due course in much the same way Desmond was selected.
Former prime ministers Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King will be dropped from the $100 and the $50.
The $20 bill will remain unchanged.