Paper Money

Canadian civil rights icon gets her day on $10 note

A note of firsts, a polymer $10 bill that is Canada’s first to be vertically oriented, and that features Viola Desmond, the first Canadian woman to be depicted on a regularly circulating bank note, entered circulation on Nov. 19 at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. 

After it was introduced by Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz and museum president John Young, it was used by Desmond’s younger sister, Wanda Robson, to purchase a book for her 12-year-old granddaughter, a book that she co-authored, Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land.

According to the Financial Post, Robson said her granddaughter always showed an interest in her great aunt, who died decades before her birth, and recently said to her, “You know nan, when I get my first ten dollar bill with Aunt Viola on it, I’m going to frame it, and put it on a wall, and never, ever spend it.”


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Desmond is often referred to as the Canadian Rosa Parks. On Nov. 8, 1946, while having her car repaired in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, about 100 miles from her native Halifax, she decided to take in a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She took a seat on the ground level because she had trouble seeing but was soon told to move to the balcony. The ticket clerk said he could not sell a first-floor ticket to people like her. 

She was arrested after refusing to leave the whites-only section and spent 12 hours in jail. She was later convicted of defrauding the province of a 1-cent sales tax, and was fined $20. This fine was imposed even though Desmond had asked to pay the difference. She lost on appeal. 

Nova Scotia posthumously gave an apology and a full pardon in 2010. 

In addition to her portrait, the face of the polymer note also has a map of Halifax’s north end, one of Canada’s oldest black communities, and the area where Desmond grew up and opened her first beauty salon. The other side has the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and an eagle feather, representing the “ongoing journey toward recognizing rights and freedoms for Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” says the Bank of Canada.

The bank pointed out several new security features including the color-shifting eagle feather, which changes from gold to green; detailed metallic images in and around a large transparent window — the Library of Parliament’s vaulted dome ceiling, maple leaves, and Canada’s flag and coat of arms; and raised ink on the portrait, the word CANADA and the large number at the bottom.

The story of Desmond’s appearance on the bill began about two years ago when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the Bank of Canada to put a Canadian woman on the face of a bank note. Desmond was selected following a consultation campaign, which invited Canadians to nominate an iconic Canadian woman.

With the introduction of the $10, the Bank of Canada said its approach to issuing bank notes is changing. “This will allow the Bank to integrate the latest security features each time a new bank note is issued, ensuring that Canadians can continue to use their bank notes with confidence.” 

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