GATINEAU, Que. – Viola Desmond, often described as Canada’s Rosa Parks for her 1946 decision to sit in a whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre, will be the first woman to be celebrated on the face of a Canadian banknote.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau says Desmond will grace the front of the $10 bill when the next series goes into circulation in 2018.
“Today is about recognizing the incalculable contribution that all women have had and continue to have in shaping Canada’s story. Viola Desmond’s own story reminds all of us that big change can start with moments of dignity and bravery,” Morneau told a news conference in Gatineau, Que.
“She represents courage, strength and determination—qualities we should all aspire to every day.”
Desmond’s sister Wanda Robson, who was instrumental in making Desmond’s story more widely known, was on hand for the announcement.
“It’s a big day to have a woman on a bank note, but it’s an especially big day to have your big sister on a bank note,” she said. “Our family is extremely proud and honoured.”
Others on the short list were poet E. Pauline Johnson; Elsie MacGill, who received an electrical engineering degree from the University of Toronto in 1927; Quebec suffragette Idola Saint-Jean; and 1928 Olympic medallist Fanny Rosenfeld, a track and field athlete.
Famous Five activist Nellie McClung, the Alberta suffragette who fought in the 1920s for women to be legally recognized as persons in Canada, was for many Canadians the most obvious omission from the short list.
There were more than 26,000 submissions from the public, which was later whittled down to 461 eligible nominees who had Canadian citizenship and had been dead for at least 25 years.
Others who didn’t make the cut included “Anne of Green Gables” author Lucy Maud Montgomery; B.C. artist Emily Carr; and Manitoba author Gabrielle Roy.
In a recent online survey, 27 per cent of respondents made McClung the No. 1 choice, with Quebec politician Therese Casgrain, MacGill, Montgomery, Carr and Desmond rounding out the top six choices.
The Bank of Canada’s independent advisory council said it was looking for nominees who overcame barriers, inspired others or left a lasting legacy.
By every measure, Desmond fits that bill.
A businesswoman turned civil libertarian, Desmond built a business as a beautician and, through her beauty school, was a mentor to young black women in Nova Scotia.
It was in 1946 when she rejected racial discrimination by sitting in a whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre. She was arrested and fined; her actions inspired later generations of black people in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada.
“She believed you could only be successful in life with an education, especially if you were a young black person,” Robson said. “If I used bad grammar, she always corrected me — in a nice way, of course — all the time.”
“If you wanted another lady, other than the Queen, to be on the bill, you’ve chosen the right person. At least, I think so.”
The bank’s advisory council received more than 18,000 submissions during a public call for nominations earlier this year.
While it’s the first time a woman other than the Queen has been on the face of a Canadian banknote, the Famous Five suffragettes, along with Casgrain, were featured on the back side of a $50 bill unveiled in 2004.
The women were dropped from the bill in 2011 when a new polymer version was introduced.