The first Canadian woman to grace the country’s banknote is a black civil rights hero

Canadian finance minister with Wanda Robson, Desmond’s sister.
Canadian finance minister with Wanda Robson, Desmond’s sister.
Image: Reuters/Chris Wattie
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A black civil rights icon will be the first Canadian woman to be featured on the country’s banknote. Starting in 2018, Viola Desmond’s face will grace the $10 bill, minister of finance Bill Morneau announced on Dec. 8.

Desmond became one of the faces of Canada’s civil rights movement in 1946, after her arrest and conviction for sitting in the white section of a segregated movie theater in New Glasgow. In 2010, 45 years after her death in 1965, she received an official pardon and apology from the governor of Nova Scotia, also a black woman.

Desmond was chosen from a list of suggestions made by the public, which was eventually narrowed down to 461 eligible candidates. Hailing from Halifax, Desmond was a successful, self-made businesswoman, an owner of a beauty school where she trained beauticians to provide services tailored to black women, at a time when these were scarcely available. She also had a line of her own beauty products.

The theater where she was arrested offered black Canadians only balcony seats, which were 1 cent cheaper than the white section downstairs. Desmond was short-sighted, according to The Globe and Mail, so she bought a balcony ticket, but sat in the main seating area. She was asked to leave, but refused and was forcibly removed by the police. Her eventual conviction for tax evasion (due to the ticket price difference) carried a $26 fine. Her lawyers unsuccessfully tried to appeal her case in Canada’s supreme court.

Earlier this year, US treasury secretary Jacob Lew announced that Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave and leading abolitionist, would in 2020 replace slave-owning president Andrew Jackson on the face of the $20 bill. 

Correction: The post initially identified Desmond as the first woman to grace a Canadian banknote. She is the first Canadian woman—the country’s $20 bill features Queen Elizabeth II, and according to the Financial Post, the image of Princess Mary was printed on notes in the 1930s.