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Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond, Canada’s Rosa Parks, commemorated on Canadian $10 bill

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says she was a ‘courageous fighter against racism … a fantastic choice’

On Dec. 8, Canada’s Minister of Finance Bill Morneau announced that civil rights activist Viola Desmond, who is often referred to as the Rosa Parks of Canada, will grace the face of the Canadian $10 bill, beginning in 2018.

Desmond will be the first civilian woman commemorated on the face of a Canadian banknote (several have been featured on the back). She helped start the Afro-Canadian civil rights movement when she refused to relinquish her seat in a whites-only section of a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, movie theater in 1946.

Unlike in the United States, which had stringent laws requiring segregation from the late 19th century until the civil rights movement in mid-1960s, Canada’s segregation was more informal. Often, there were tacit rules observed in public spaces such as hotels, theaters and restaurants.

Years before Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, Canada was already in the throes of overturning segregation in Nova Scotia, thanks to Desmond.

The Halifax, Nova Scotia, native made her way to the movie theater after her car broke down in the unfamiliar town. Needing something to do to kill time while she waited for help, Desmond bought a ticket and sat in the whites-only section of the theater, not realizing that Afro-Canadians were expected to sit in the balcony.

Movie theater staff asked her to move to the upper-level section, but she refused to leave her seat and was ultimately taken out by police officers. Desmond was fined $20, charged with defrauding the province of Nova Scotia and held in jail overnight.

As a result of the tax evasion charge, Desmond was required to pay the province 1 cent, which was the difference in tax between the two floors, because the main floor and balcony had different costs.

She later filed a lawsuit regarding the defrauding charge, alleging that she hadn’t truly been arrested for tax evasion. The lawsuit was unsuccessful because of a technicality. But the suit challenged Nova Scotia’s discriminatory practices and brought attention to the way people of color were being treated in Canada and helped ignite the movement for racial equality.

“Businesswoman, community leader, and courageous fighter against racism,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Twitter. “A fantastic choice.”

Desmond was born in 1914 in Halifax and initially studied to be a teacher. After she married her husband, Jack, she switched careers and began working in the barbershop with him. Eventually she became a beautician, establishing the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, which helped other black women in Nova Scotia realize their goals of becoming beauticians. Desmond attended a business college in Montreal following the trial, and later settled in New York. She died in 1965 at age 51.

On International Women’s Day last March, Trudeau announced that a woman would become the new face of the Canadian $10 bill. Initially, there were 460 names in the pool. That pool was reduced because finalists had to be dead for at least 25 years. Desmond was picked out of five women. From 2004 to 2012, Canada featured several women on the back of the $50 bill.

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.