EDITOR’S NOTE: On November 19, 2018, OHS Communications and Outreach Coordinator Daniel Dishaw had the pleasure of joining the Ontario Black History Society (OHS affiliate) for the launch of the new vertical $10 banknote featuring Viola Desmond. At the launch, Daniel ran into former OHS Communications Coordinator Andrea Izzo (pictured in the photo above with two of his students), who was kind enough to write an article detailing his involvement in the event.
For those unfamiliar with her story, Viola Desmond took a stand against racial segregation in a Nova Scotia cinema when she refused to leave a whites-only section of a New Glasgow theatre in 1946. Dragged out of the theatre by the police for refusing to leave the floor-seating area, Ms. Desmond spent 12 hours in jail. She was charged with tax evasion for refusing to pay the once-cent tax difference between the seat she was permitted to purchase and the seat she chose to sit in. The incident sparked protests from the Black community in Nova Scotia and helped ignite the modern civil rights movement in Canada.
Andrea Izzo, Teacher, York Region District School Board
The Bank of Canada made history earlier this year when it announced it would be releasing a new $10 bank note featuring Viola Desmond and numerous symbols representing human rights. Symbols featured on the vertical bill include the Library of Parliament, Halifax’s historic north quarter, an eagle feather, Winnipeg’s Museum of Human Rights, text from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and of course, a portrait of Viola Desmond. Sometimes referred to as “Canada’s Rosa Parks,” Desmond is remembered for her heroic acts of protest in 1946 that challenged segregation nine years before Parks’ iconic stand.
In November, the Bank of Canada celebrated the launch of the new note by hosting six simultaneous press conferences in cities across Canada, including Toronto, Halifax, and in Winnipeg at the Museum of Human Rights. Invited to the Toronto launch were students from Viola Desmond Public School, located in Ajax and a school of the same name in Milton.
My grade 2 class from Summitview Public School had a memorable experience that they will not soon forget. Twenty of my students were invited to the launch in recognition of their school work. In my class, the children had spent a month researching and learning about Viola Desmond’s life and her heroic civil rights activism in the 1940s. They subsequently wrote and mailed letters to the Bank of Canada to express their thanks for the recognition of Desmond’s efforts and for including a Canadian woman on a regularly circulating banknote for the first time. Two students were selected to read their letters aloud to the audience.
Although the children expressed a variety of perspectives and ideas, there was a common thread throughout all the letters they had sent: the idea of racial segregation and the treatment of Viola Desmond was inherently and terribly wrong. At the age of only eight, the students readily recognized this truth.
Canadian history provides us with stories and lessons that are relevant to our lives and to the lives of our students. Regardless of their age, students can make these connections.
Penny H. was one of the students inspired by Desmond; Penny wrote, “Viola Desmond was very important because she was one of the first Canadian women to stand up and change the law. I hope I can be like Viola Desmond one day.”
As a successful business owner and educator, Desmond was often travelling for her cosmetics company. One evening, after experiencing car troubles, Desmond was forced to spend an evening in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She decided to take in a movie at a local movie theatre, where she would make her historic stand. She purchased a ticket for a seat on the theatre’s ground floor. When asked to relocate, she defiantly refused. She was later jailed, convicted, and fined. Her court case was one of the first known legal challenges against racial segregation brought forth by a Black woman in Canada.
I would like to thank the Bank of Canada for recognizing the work of the students. This once-of-a-lifetime opportunity to share their letters will be a special memory for them. The Bank has taught them a valuable lesson: that they have a voice and in our democracy, that voice is valuable and it is heard.