Civil-rights pioneer Viola Desmond chosen as Canada’s ‘Bank Note-able’ woman

Civil-rights pioneer Viola Desmond chosen as Canada’s ‘Bank Note-able’ woman

By Dave Korzinski, Research Associate

December 8, 2016 – After receiving hundreds of nominations, narrowing down an initial list of 461 to a long-list of 12, and then to a short-list of five, the Bank of Canada has chosen Viola Desmond as the first Canadian woman to have her image featured on a banknote. Beginning in 2018, the woman referred to by many as Canada’s Rosa Parks will replace John A. MacDonald on the $10 bill.

The Angus Reid Institute sought the opinions of Canadians during the Bank Note-able campaign, which was announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March of 2016. Presented with the long-list of 12 nominees and asked to select their top one or two choices, 12 per cent of Canadians said Desmond would be the correct choice. This number jumps to more than one-in-three (37%) in Atlantic Canada, where Desmond’s legacy is well-known.


After refusing to leave a “whites-only” section of a theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946, Desmond, a businesswoman and beautician, was forcibly removed from the theatre and jailed. Upon release, she was given a fine for tax-evasion, based on the one-penny price difference between the whites-only main floor, and segregated balcony seating.

She fought the fine in court, ultimately losing the case, which the government continually insisted was for tax evasion. The case however, was integral in shedding light upon the institutional racism of the time. Indeed, Desmond had been unable to even study to become a beautician in Halifax, and had moved to Montreal for her training.

In 2010, 45 years after her death, Viola Desmond was posthumously pardoned and given an official apology from the government of Nova Scotia for the racial discrimination she endured.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau summarized what Desmond means to Canada in his press conference announcing the Bank of Canada’s Decision:

“She represents courage, strength and determination — qualities we should all aspire to every day.”

Most wanted a woman on a banknote

When asked, eight-in-ten Canadians said that there should be a woman featured on the front of one of their country’s banknotes. Enthusiasm for this process was highest in British Columbia and Quebec when ARI asked.


There is however, some disagreement over whether Desmond should have been the pick. When Canadians were asked to weigh in on each of the twelve women in the running, and given a brief description of their notable accomplishments, Desmond ranked sixth on the list, with Nellie McClung – member of the ‘Famous Five,’ who won recognition of women’s legal status as ‘persons,’ thereby creating eligibility for them to be appointed to the Senate – taking top spot. In fact, just two of Canadians’ top six choices made the Bank of Canada’s final five:


Image Credit – Government of Nova Scotia

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