A heroine for our times

Published on December 9, 2016

If you don't recognize Viola Desmond's name and face today, you soon will.

In the not-too-distant future, whenever you open your wallet to pay for a loaf of bread or carton of milk, you'll see this brave, black Canadian civil rights pioneer looking back at you from the $10 bill.

And you'll be reminded how she struck a decisive blow against racial segregation in this country.

Desmond received a distinctive honour Thursday when she was chosen as the first Canadian woman to appear on the front of a Canadian banknote.

The decision likely surprised some history buffs who assumed the recognition would go to one of the women on the government's shortlist with a more established reputation. First Nations Victorian poet Pauline Johnson or Elizabeth McGill, the first woman in Canada to become an aeronautical engineer as well as a major force in producing fighter planes during the Second World War, could be counted in this category.

In comparison, Desmond is known today, if at all, for a single, noteworthy act of defiance. Yet what she did changed Canada for the better. And it's why she should be remembered.

It happened in New Glasgow in 1946 in the Roseland Theatre. Desmond was sitting downstairs when the manager ordered her to move to the balcony where black patrons, like her, were expected to sit.

Desmond refused. She had suffered from discrimination all her life, travelling to Montreal and New York to become a beautician because no Nova Scotia school would accept a black woman.

But this time she wouldn't give in. Police dragged her to jail and locked her up overnight. Freed after paying a $20 fine, Desmond decided to challenge the injustice of legally-sanctioned racism

She went to court, but lost. Persisting, she had a judicial review of the decision. She lost that, too. And eventually, due to the strain of her courtroom battles and the notoriety her case brought, Desmond left Nova Scotia, finally settling in New York City where she died in 1960 at the age of 50.

But Desmond's act of defiance and the publicity surrounding her legal struggle galvanized Nova Scotia's black community and convinced them to demand change. This, in turn, led to the scrapping of the province's segregation laws as well as the passing of its human rights act.

Canadians have waited too long to see a woman, other than Queen Elizabeth, on the front of a banknote.

There are strong women who fought for the vote, to run for elected office or receive equal pay who would be worthy of this distinction.

Simply having a national discussion about which woman belongs on our currency has been a valuable, enlightening experience. We hope such history lessons continue and that, in future, Canadian banknotes feature other significant Canadian women.

But on this occasion, it is most appropriate to applaud the decision to put Viola Desmond on the $10 bill, starting in 2018, and to salute Desmond herself.

Her refusal to move from her seat moved a nation.