New Banknote Features Iconic Canadian Woman

“The Queen is in good company” now that Viola Desmond appears on the ten-dollar bill.

Written by Kaitlin Vitt

Posted November 20, 2018

Update: This ground-breaking banknote featuring Viola Desmond captured a prestigious design award from the International Bank Note Society, the IBNS Banknote of the Year for 2018.

The first regularly circulating Canadian banknote to feature a non-royal woman by herself was launched in Winnipeg on November 19.

Civil rights activist Viola Desmond appears on one side of the vertically orientated ten-dollar bill, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is on the other.

“It’s unbelievable to think that … my sister — a woman, a black woman — is on the ten-dollar bill,” said Wanda Robson, Desmond’s younger sister.

“The Queen is in good company.”

Desmond, a black businesswoman, ran a beauty salon and beauty school in Halifax. In 1946, thirty-two-year-old Desmond went to a movie in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, and sat on the main floor, a whites-only section of the theatre. When asked to change seats, she refused and was arrested, spending the night in jail.

She was convicted for not having paid the extra cent for the cost of the main-floor seat and fined twenty-six dollars. The Nova Scotia government apologized and granted Desmond a posthumous free pardon in 2010, forty-five years after her death.

“Viola Desmond wasn’t the first, or sadly, the last person to stand up to injustice,” said Jennifer O’Connell, parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance. “I hope with the daily reminder of her story, more of us will be encouraged to follow in her courageous footsteps and take a stand to do what’s right.”

In 2016, Canadians nominated more than twenty-five thousand women who they thought deserved to be featured on the new bill, and Desmond was selected.

Robson made the first purchase with the bill that features her sister, buying her granddaughter a gift. At a kiosk at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, she bought Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times, a book Robson co-wrote.

Throughout the launch event, Robson smiled as she looked at the bill, bringing it to her mouth to kiss her sister’s image. At one point, ninety-one year old Robson, who uses a walker, swayed her hips and marched to a beat doing a little dance, showing her excitement and pride for the new bill.

Robson also gave insight into what she thinks her sister would say about being featured on a Canadian banknote.

“She would say that, to herself, ‘Well, it’s about time that somebody recognized what I did and what so many other people did in their own way.’”

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Click on the cover image above to read the April-May 2009 Beaver article “Ticket to Freedom.”

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