Viola Desmond on the $10 note is a history lesson — but not everyone is learning

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia reimburses court fees, fine paid by civil rights icon Viola Desmond'
Nova Scotia reimburses court fees, fine paid by civil rights icon Viola Desmond
More than seven decades after Viola Desmond paid a fine for the actions that made her a civil rights icon, Nova Scotia is reimbursing the cost of the ticket. Alicia Draus has more – Feb 3, 2021

Kathy Hogarth remembers the day her then-10-year-old came home from school talking about Viola Desmond.

“That, for me, represents the significance of highlighting Black figures,” says Hogarth, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Social Work.

The year was 2018 and Desmond, the Black Nova Scotian who fought racial segregation in her province, had just become the new face of Canada’s $10 bill.

READ MORE: Forgotten story of Toronto neighbourhood illustrates lack of Black history education

Hogarth’s daughter relished seeing a Black woman on a banknote. Whenever Hogarth spent a $10 bill, her little girl would ask whether she had another one to hold on to.

Celebrating Black icons on a nation’s currency “is a beautiful use of money,” Hogarth says. “It goes far and wide, it touches every corner of our society.”

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For Nova Scotia Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard, the $10 bill is an opportunity to talk about Desmond’s legacy, which goes beyond refusing to leave her seat in the “whites only” section of New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre in 1946.

Click to play video: '$10 bill featuring Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond unveiled'
$10 bill featuring Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond unveiled

Desmond’s fight for social justice started long before then, Thomas Bernard says. When she found she couldn’t train as a beautician in Nova Scotia, she went to Montreal and then continued her schooling in Atlantic City and New York. When she couldn’t find beauty products to service her clients of African descent, she made her own.

Seeing her on the $10 bill is a reminder that many African Nova Scotian families trace their histories back to the 18th century, Bernard says.

It represents the significance of our very early presence here, and it recognizes the contributions that people of African descent have made to the country, to the province and to the world,” she says.

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READ MORE: Black History Month — The untold story of ‘Auntie’ Annie Saunders in southern Alberta

Bernard hopes Canada will use its currency again to highlight parts of its Black and Indigenous history.

When asked about who she’d like to see on a banknote or coin, the first name that comes to mind, says Thomas Bernard, is Rita Joe, the Mi’kmaq poet.

“That we don’t have anyone from the Indigenous communities on a banknote to me signals the fact that that needs to change,” Thomas Bernard says.

Joe isn’t among the eight iconic Canadians that have so far been shortlisted for the next $5 banknote. But the group does include Inuit artist Pitseolak Ashoona; Indigenous rights advocate and war hero Binaaswi (Francis Pegahmagabow); Siksika chief and diplomat Isapo-muxika, also known as Crowfoot; and Mohawk chief, war veteran and activist Onondeyoh (Frederick Ogilvie Loft).

The selection process followed a script similar to the one the Bank of Canada used for the $10 note, with a call for public input that resulted in submissions from nearly 45,000 people and more than 600 eligible nominees, the Bank told Global News. An independent Advisory Council then narrowed that list to eight candidates. It will be up to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to make a final decision, which is expected to come in early 2021. The new $5 note, however, won’t be in circulation for another few years, the Bank of Canada said.

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The Bank said it cannot yet speak to what will appear on future notes.

Click to play video: 'Viola Desmond tribute among murals being added to Mulgrave Park in Halifax'
Viola Desmond tribute among murals being added to Mulgrave Park in Halifax

There are many names that immediately come to mind as possible candidates for the next Black Canadian to appear on the country’s currency, Thomas Bernard says. Her list includes Rosemary Brown, the B.C. politician who became the first Black female member of a provincial legislature. Brown also became the first woman to attempt to reach the helm of a federal party when she ran for the leadership of the NDP in 1975 with the slogan “Brown is Beautiful.”

But, Thomas Bernard notes, “this country wasn’t quite ready for a Black woman leader of a major political party.”

Rev. Donald E. Fairfax, a long-time Nova Scotian pastor of two congregations and recipient of the Order of Canada, would also be an inspirational choice for a banknote or coin, Thomas Bernard says.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan’s Mattie Mayes leaves impact decades after her life

“Through his ministry, he was on the front lines for fighting for social justice,” Thomas Bernard says. But not many Canadians know about his advocacy, because it happened behind the scenes, she says.

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“He’s a person that I would like to see elevated more.

Hogarth’s list of possible candidates for the next note or coin includes Lincoln Alexander, the first Black Canadian Member of Parliament, cabinet minister and lieutenant-governor of Ontario; Elijah McCoy, a mechanical engineer and inventor; and Josiah Henson, who fled slavery to Canada in 1830 and founded the Dawn Settlement.

Henson was “integrally involved in the slave movement, (something) that we have divorced ourselves from as a nation … without an acknowledgment of about 200 years of active slave engagement,” Hogarth says.

Click to play video: '‘The Queen is in good company’: Viola Desmond’s sister expresses gratitude for new $10 bill'
‘The Queen is in good company’: Viola Desmond’s sister expresses gratitude for new $10 bill

The Royal Canadian Mint has no plans to re-design our current Canadian circulation coins, but has featured Black Canadians on its collector coins, including Desmond in 2019 and Willie O’Ree in 2020. Both were issued in conjunction with the start of Black History Month. For 2021, the Mint’s third coin commemorating Black history in Canada commemorates the Black Loyalists.

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But collectibles don’t hold the potential for learning opportunities that currency — coins and banknotes in everybody’s hands — has, Hogarth says.

“Probably the Bank of Canada doesn’t necessarily see itself in a teaching role through currency,” Hogarth says. “But inadvertently, they are.”

But Canada is still failing to teach parts of its history, both Hogarth and Thomas Bernard say.

“We still talk about Black History Month, divorced from Canadian history,” Hogarth says. “Black history is Canadian history.”

And when Thomas Bernard showed a photo of Desmond’s sister Wanda Robson holding the new $10 bill during a presentation for a Grade 3 class in Ajax, Ont. in February of last year, she says only one child knew who the woman on the note was: her grandson.

“We’re missing the point if we’re not teaching about this woman on the $10 bill,” she says.

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