Almost a decade before Rosa Parks sparked the civil rights movement in the US, a woman in Nova Scotia kicked off Canada’s with a similar act of defiance at a segregated movie theater.
And this month, that woman, Viola Desmond, became the first black person to appear on Canadian currency. She’s also the first woman to appear alone who’s not a British royal.
The Bank of Canada unveiled a new $10 bill featuring Desmond last week on International Women’s Day. She was selected after an open call for nominations for an iconic Canadian woman to appear on a redesigned bank note, the bank said in a statement. The new bill will be in circulation by the end of the year.
The then-32-year-old business owner and beautician from Halifax stepped into history in November 1946 when she tried to go see a movie. Desmond, who was on the road selling her beauty products, went to the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow to kill some time while her car was being repaired.
She bought a ticket and sat in a seat on the theater’s main floor, which was reserved for whites only. Blacks were expected to sit in the balcony.
Desmond refused to leave her seat after an usher asked her to move. So officers dragged her out and tossed her in jail.
What she was charged with was essentially tax evasion – failing to pay the full tax on the more expensive main floor ticket. The difference in tax over the balcony ticket? Just one cent.
At the time, Canada didn’t have Jim Crow-type laws dictating that the races remain separate. But many Canadian businesses, like the Roseland Theatre, enforced unwritten rules on segregation.
Desmond was convicted but later appealed it.
That effort went all the way to Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court – and failed. But it in turn fired up the province’s black community.
The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People used that momentum in a number of campaigns that led to desegregation of workplaces in the province, according to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Desmond died in 1965 in New York at the age of 50.
The honors for Desmond, who is sometimes refered to as Canada’s Rosa Parks, go far beyond the bank note. She’s been honored with a Canadian postage stamp. She’s had a ferry in Halifax named for her as well as a street. She’s had her portrait hung in the ballroom of Government House, the official residence of the lieutenant governor of the province.
But most importantly, she was granted a posthumous apology and pardon in 2010 for her arrest and conviction