Queen's Film and Media

Film and Media Studies
Film and Media Studies

Viola Desmond Gets Honoured on the Ten Dollar Bill

10 dollar bill

In 1946, Viola Desmond’s stand at a segregated Nova Scotia movie theatre made her into a civil-rights icon for black Canadians. On November 19, $10 banknotes commemorating her will officially enter circulation, the first time a Canadian woman has been celebrated on the face of her country’s currency.

Here’s what you need to know about her:

A night at the movies

The fateful movie she went to see was The Dark Mirror, a psychological thriller starring Olivia de Havilland. She was at the Roseland Theatre to kill time while a garage repaired her car, which wouldn’t be ready until the next day. But the Roseland was a segregated theatre; the floor seats were for whites only, while black patrons were confined to the balcony. Ms. Desmond was shortsighted and needed a better view, and tried to buy a floor seat, but was refused because she was black. She then bought a balcony seat (which was one cent cheaper) but sat in the floor area – until theatre staff called the police and had her dragged out. She spent 12 hours in jail. "She said, 'I stretched out and I was just getting comfortable and I thought, oh, this is nice, and I won't worry about anything,'" her 89-year-old sister, Wanda Robson, recalled at the 2016 ceremony where Ms. Desmond was chosen as the new face of the $10 bill. "And then this usher came up and told her she couldn't sit there."

On trial for a single penny

She was charged and convicted of tax evasion – over a single penny. She did not have a lawyer at trial – she was never informed she was entitled to one. Arguing that Ms. Desmond had evaded the one-cent difference between the balcony and floor ticket prices, a judge fined her $26. Protests from Nova Scotia’s black community and an appeal to the provincial Supreme Court proved fruitless, and Ms. Desmond died in 1965 without any acknowledgment of racial discrimination in her case.

‘She is now free’

In 2010, Nova Scotia gave her a free pardon – and the black lieutenant governor signed it into law. “Here I am, 64 years later – a black woman giving freedom to another black woman,” Mayann Francis recalled in a 2014 profile about the pardon, which called Ms. Desmond’s case a miscarriage of justice and said she should never have been charged. “I believe she has to know that she is now free.”

Fitting the bill

When the Trudeau government opened public consultations to choose a historical woman for the $10 bill, Ms. Desmond was one of five to make the shortlist, along with First Nations 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 (Bobbie) Rosenfeld, a track and field athlete.

The government announced the final choice in December, 2016, and in March of 2018 they unveiled the design of the bill: The first vertically oriented banknote in Canada. Behind Ms. Desmond’s portrait is a map including the stretch of Gottingen Street, the city’s north end’s main drag, where she opened her salon. On the other side of the bill is a picture of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and an eagle feather, which the Bank of Canada said represents the “ongoing journey toward recognizing rights and freedoms for Indigenous Peoples in Canada.”