Viola Desmond to be featured on Canadian banknote
Shortly after being appointed to the Bank of Canada independent advisory council last April to develop a shortlist of iconic Canadian women who could be featured on the first banknote of the next series, former world champion hurdler Perdita Felicien received a tweet from a Black woman saying, ‘they are not going to pick a Black woman anyway’.
“That hurt me and the more I thought about it, I figured she might be right,” said the 10-time national 100-metre hurdles champion who retired from the sport three years ago.
Felicien was in Whistler, British Columbia covering the bobsleigh and skeleton World Cup for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation when a Bank of Canada representative called her last week with the news that Viola Desmond was selected to be featured on the new $10 banknote expected to be released in late 2018.
“I screamed,” she said. “I remember the girl from the Bank of Canada asking me if I was OK. I was surprised and in shock. I also thought back to that negative tweet and felt a sense of satisfaction that she was wrong on this one. Often times as people of colour, the contributions of people that look like me are often overlooked. I just didn’t want to be a token on that advisory council. I wanted my thoughts and ideas to be known and taken seriously.”
Scheduled to cover the luge World Cup starting last Friday in Whistler, Felicien received her employers’ blessings to fly to Quebec for the historic announcement.
“This is history and I was not going to miss it,” said the Oshawa-born Felicien who spent three years in St. Lucia with relatives before being re-united with her mother when she was four years old. “It took me almost 24 hours flying between Gatineau and Whistler over two days, but I didn’t mind. One day, I will have a boy or girl and they will take a $10 bill with Viola’s image on it and go and buy a present for me or a friend and I will have the opportunity to say to them that your mother had a part to play in a Black woman’s face being on that banknote.”
The other Advisory Council Members were Royal Society of Canada fellow and Order of Canada officer Dr. Margaret Conrad, author and historian Merna Forster who is a longtime advocate of Canada’s unsung heroines and led the campaign calling for Canadian women on banknotes, Quebec Network of Women Studies director Francine Descarries, Laurentian University president & vice-chancellor Dominic Giroux, novelist Gurjinder Basran and youth activist Michael Redhead Champagne.
They met over three weekends in Ottawa in April, May and June.
“From 461 qualifying nominees, we had to come up with a list of 12 and that was not easy,” said Felicien who represented Canada at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. “At our first meeting, we resolved to put our biases aside for the process to be just and fair. Of course, our deliberations got heated, testy and intense at times, but we were guided by the criteria set out and that is that the nominees should have broken or overcome barriers, be inspirational, have made a significant change and have left a lasting legacy. We looked at each of the women in the context of their lives to see if they met those requirements. We knew we couldn't make everyone happy, but we did the best we could.”
A formal public opinion survey gauged the views of a representative sample of Canadians regarding the 12 long-listed nominees and the results were shared with the advisory council who supported the candidates.
Following a thorough review of the long list, the survey results and advice from historical experts, the advisory council established a short list of five last June.
Canada’s Finance Minister Bill Morneau selected the winner.
This year marks the 70th anniversary since Desmond, a Halifax beauty shop owner, refused to sit in a New Glasgow theatre balcony section designated for Blacks. Instead, she sat on the ground floor reserved for White patrons. She had gone to the Roseland theatre to pass time while her car was being repaired.
After being forcibly removed from the theatre and arrested, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket and fined $20 and $6 in theatre court costs.
“Viola wasn’t fined and jailed for breaking ‘segregation’ rules because the segregation actually wasn’t legal,” said Canadian Parliamentary poet laureate Dr. George Elliott Clarke. “So a tax-code provision was used to enforce segregation. How beautifully ironic now that her image will grace the $10 bill as a double-representation of struggles against racism and struggles for women entrepreneurs. And you can take that to the bank.”
When efforts to overturn the conviction at higher levels of court failed, Desmond closed the business, moved to Montreal and enrolled in a business college. She eventually settled in New York where she died in 1965 at age 51.
Six years ago, the Nova Scotia government officially apologized and pardoned Desmond.
On the advice of the Executive Council, the province’s first Black lieutenant governor Mayann Francis exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to grant a free pardon which is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was an error.
That is the only time that a free pardon has been posthumously granted in Canada.
Francis, whose tenure in office ended in April 2012, was at her doctor’s office when the historic announcement was made.
“I had no idea this had happened until I returned home to a flood of e-mails and phone calls,” she said. “My reaction was sheer delight that Viola’s legacy will live on forever. This was a smart, courageous, innovative, hardworking and determined Black woman who was treated with total disrespect because of her colour while she was on her way to Cape Breton to expand her business and her car broke down. This is a truly great development for Viola’s family and Canada. If I wasn’t sick today, I was going to go her nearby gravesite and say, ‘Viola, you did it’.”
Desmond was a role model for businesswoman Bev Mascoll who died 15 years ago.
“It was Bev who first told me of Viola and how much she meant to her,” said Francis, a close friend of Mascoll. “I know Bev is smiling very much today.”
Desmond is the first Canadian female on the face of a banknote.
In the past, women have been on the back side of a Canadian banknote.
The Famous Five suffragettes, along with Quebec politician Therese Casgrain, were featured on a $50 bill unveiled in 2004. However, the women were dropped from the bill seven years later when a new polymer version was launched.