Remembering and Memorializing Viola Desmond: The first Black woman to be featured on a Canadian banknote

As our Conference Showcase Series continues, guest-blogger Channon Oyeniran, Vice President, Ontario Black History Society explores the civil rights legacy behind and significance of Canada’s new $10 note.

On December 8th, 2016, after receiving thousands of nominations from across Canada, it was announced that a woman would be the first in the country’s history, to be featured on a Canadian banknote in 2018! This was a historic moment in Canadian history, not only is a woman to be featured on the $10 bill, but Viola Desmond, a black woman and non-royal, would get this prestigious honour. Born on July 6th, 1914, into a family of ten siblings, Viola Irene Desmond was a successful businesswoman and entrepreneur who operated her own salon and beauty school in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Having received training in Montreal, Atlantic City and New York as a beautician, Viola Desmond returned to Halifax and started her salon and beauty school and was very successful as she catered to black people at a time when there were not many services available to them. On November 8, 1946 while enroute to Sydney, Nova Scotia for a business meeting, Viola’s car broke down in the small town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She was told that the repair of her car would take a number of hours. So, Viola booked a hotel room and also decided to see a movie to pass the time. It was at the Roseland Theatre, where a significant moment would change Viola’s life and her actions would memorialize her forever as a Canadian icon who added to the fight against racism in Canada.

One of Viola Desmond’s beauty products. Image: Nova Scotia Archives, used under creative commons licence.

The Roseland theatre, back then, had a rule that restricted black patrons to balcony seats as they were not allowed to sit downstairs in the white-only section of the theatre to watch a movie. Viola requested a ticket for the downstairs, but instead, the ticket seller sold her a ticket for the balcony. After recognizing the racist rules of the theatre, Viola still went to sit downstairs to watch the movie. She was asked to vacate her seat, but she refused to do so. Eventually, the manager of the theatre and a police officer dragged her out and she was arrested and charged with tax evasion because she did not pay the one cent tax on a downstairs seat. After spending the night in jail, Viola Desmond decided to fight the charges of tax evasion that were brought against her, rather than accept what happened. After a long legal battle, she eventually lost (she was posthumously pardoned in 2010-sixty-three years after the incident at the Roseland Theatre). She subsequently became a pillar and a symbol, as her case is credited in helping to end racial segregation in Nova Scotia.

News article in The Clarion reporting on Viola Desmond’s case in 1946. Image: Nova Scotia Archive, used under creative commons licence.

In conjunction with International Women’s Day, on March 8th, 2018, the new $10 banknote featuring Viola Desmond was unveiled to the public. In attendance to mark this event was one of Viola’s younger sister’s, Wanda Robson. I think remembering Viola’s legacy and memorializing her in this significant way, brings honour to her as well as her family. To remember and share her story about what she did not so long ago in Canadian history, during a time of racial segregation in Canada, is remarkable! Viola Desmond chose to stand up and fight against injustice and racism, not only for her hometown, but for a nation and for generations to come. Her being memorialized on the $10 bill, is a testament to her courage, resilience and determination in the face of racial inequality.

Viola Desmond’s grave site at Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Viola Desmond died on 7 February 1965, 45 years before the posthumous pardon that recognised her innocence and the injustice of her conviction.

Channon Oyeniran was born in Scarborough, Ontario Canada, but grew up and currently resides in Ajax, Ontario with her husband and their son. Channon is Vice-President of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), a non-profit registered Canadian charity, dedicated to the study, preservation and promotion of Black History and heritage. 

Channon hosts her own blog Tuesday Justice with her colleague Michelle Palmer.

Channon will be presenting a paper at the Remember Me Conference (4-7 April, 2018). Full details are available on our Events page.


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