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Canada Will Put Black Activist Viola Desmond on the 10 Dollar Bill

Dec 9 2016 9:49 PM
Canada Will Put Black Activist Viola Desmond on the 10 Dollar Bill

Flickr: bankofcanada

It was announced last spring that abolitionist Harriet Tubman would be the new face of the twenty dollar bill, replacing Andrew Jackson. Starting in 2018, black activist and entrepreneur Viola Desmond will appear on the Canadian ten dollar bill, replacing Canada's first Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald.

In a statement released on December 8, the Bank of Canada revealed Desmond would be not only be the first black Canadian to appear on a banknote, but also the first Canadian woman ever. Currently, Queen Elizabeth II serves as the face of Canada's twenty dollar bill. The move is billed as a chance to demonstrate "broader themes of social justice and the struggle for rights and freedoms," on Canadian tender by the Bank of Canada and Canadian Ministry of Finance.

Desmond's story is not unlike the one of Rosa Parks, and occurred nine years before Parks made the historic decision not to move to the back of the bus. Desmond was a successful Canadian business woman who owned both her own cosmetics line and founded a beauty school in Halifax, Nova Scotia. On a business trip, her car broke down, and while waiting for her car to be repaired, she went to see a movie. Upon purchasing a balcony seat at the theater, she decided to exchange her ticket for a better floor seat. She was denied the change after being told the lower level was for whites only, despite her offering to pay the difference in price. After sitting in the floor area anyway, Desmond was violently arrested and charged for defrauding the government of Nova Scotia for refusing to pay the tax difference between both tickets.

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While the move to feature Desmond on the new bill is being hailed as a "fantastic choice" by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and "reminder of dignity and bravery" by Canada's Minister of Finance Bill Morneau — many black Canadians feel conflicted.

Dr. Afua Cooper, chair of Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax explains to Broadly that it's a great symbolic gesture, but should be viewed through a critical lense. "She [Desmond] suffered and eventually left Nova Scotia; it ruined her in many ways," Cooper said. "Acknowledging that and I think having her on the bill is a way of honouring that a wrong was done."

Paulette Kelley, vice president of the Ontario Black History Society, also agrees that ithe move shouldn't be discredited as an achievement, telling Broadly, "Featuring her speaks to me in a very positive way and what it's saying is that they do recognize the contributions of black people and women who've had to go through so much."

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However, Cooper also believes we can't forget the deeper implications of having a black woman who suffered at the hands of the government on money. "Money or coins is a symbol of capitalism. It's the same racist capitalist society that branded her a criminal."

Not only that, but Cooper also emphasizes that the fight for equality for black Canadians is far from over. "It should not blind us to the anti-black racism that exists today in Nova Scotia and Canada." Canada's last racially segregated school only closed in 1983, in the same province where Desmond was arrested. According to the most recent data by the Government of Canada, blacks get paid 21 percent less than non-minority Canadians.

Both Cooper and Kelley hope this ultimately serves as a way for Canadians to re-familiarize themselves with black Canadian history

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