Woman on New Canada $10 Bill Fought Racism Before Rosa Parks

  • Minister announces selection of rights activist Viola Desmond
  • Ex-PMs Mackenzie King, Borden to be removed from future notes

Governor of the Bank of Canada Stephen Poloz, left, Minister of Status of Women, Patty Hajdu, second left, Wanda Robson, second from right, and Minister of Finance Bill Morneau, right, after revealing Viola Desmond as the first woman to be featured on a Canadian bank note, in Gatineau, Canada, on Dec. 8, 2016.

Photographer: Chris Roussakis/Bloomberg

Canada has named civil rights activist Viola Desmond, who challenged racial segregation in the 1940s, to appear on the country’s next $10 bill.

The new money is due to enter circulation in late 2018, and wraps up consultations that generated 26,300 nominations and 461 candidates that met the official criteria for adding a prominent woman to the currency. Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz and Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced the winner Thursday at the Canadian Museum of History just outside of Ottawa.

“Canadians have told us that it was long overdue,” Poloz said in Gatineau, Quebec.

Over Canada’s history, most of the images on bank notes have been men, with the recent exception of Queen Elizabeth II. The announcement follows moves in other countries to correct a gender imbalance, with the U.S. Treasury choosing abolitionist Harriet Tubman for a $20 bill and the Bank of England choosing 19th-century novelist Jane Austen.

“I had the very, very difficult choice of finding just one” finalist, Morneau said.

Desmond (1914–1965) challenged racial segregation policies in the eastern province of Nova Scotia in 1946 -- years before Rosa Parks helped spark the U.S. civil rights movement by taking a similar fight against separate bus seating.

‘Big Day’

Desmond was jailed, convicted and fined for sitting in a whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theater, for attempted fraud over “the one-cent difference between the balcony seats” that segregated blacks and whites, according to an official biography.

Her younger sister was on hand for Thursday’s ceremony. “It’s a real big day to have my big sister on a bank note,” Wanda Robson said. Robson drew laughs from the crowd for detailing her sister’s scrappy nature, including her schoolteacher’s habit of correcting any bad grammar she overheard. “I really know if Viola were here how she would feel: She would feel so very proud.”

Canada said this new bank note will begin a bigger shift toward diversity on the nation’s currency. The next $5 bill will also feature someone chosen through a similar process, meaning some famous Canadian men are losing their spots.

“Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and our first francophone prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, will be honoured on our higher-value bank notes,” instead of the fives and tens more often carried around by Canadians, according to a Bank of Canada statement. “William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sir Robert Borden will no longer be portrayed on bank notes.”

(An earlier version of this story corrected the date of new bank note’s circulation.)

(Updates with criteria for selection in 2nd paragraph.)
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