The Ten Dollar Myth of Viola Desmond

The story is based on an invented tradition transposed from the American experience of Rosa Parks — writes Geoffrey Baker

The announcement that Viola Desmond (1914-1965) would replace Sir John A. Macdonald on the ten-dollar banknote issued by the Bank of Canada was greeted with much celebration and fanfare, along with the usual platitudes that have become ever more prevalent in the Ottawa of Trudeau II. In our age of every achievement being an outstanding achievement in the field of excellence,(1) a commentator would have to be a masochist to criticize or question such a choice as Viola Desmond. As a woman of colour and civil rights crusader — so goes the received narrative — she is styled as Canada’s glorious precursor to Rosa Parks.(2) Even Nova Scotia’s Minister of African-Nova Scotian Affairs, Tony Ince, refuses to look upon Viola Desmond as Canada’s Rosa Parks (CBC report, Feb. 19, 2016). Various outlets trumpeted Desmond as the “first Canadian women to appear on a Canadian bank note” (Government of Nova Scotia Press Release, “Viola Desmond, First Canadian Woman to appear on a bank note,” Dec. 8, 2016). The reality is rather more nuanced than this of course – quite aside from the fact that Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, is a “Canadian” as Canada’s Head of State, and has appeared on no less than 20 Canadian bank notes since 1935 (as the 8-year-old Princess Elizabeth). Similarly, the comparison of Desmond and Parks is problematic, especially when one considers the immediate impact that Parks had on the civil rights movement in the United States, while the legend of Desmond’s impact has been greatly enhanced with the passage of time. The sad reality is there are better candidates for bank note immortalization than Viola Desmond. 

A perusal of Canada’s numismatic history reveals that our early banknotes bore the portraits of various figures from exploration, government, the world of finance, and even a few Indigenous people. This aside from the obligatory allegories of commerce, locomotives, steamships, and farm animals. The Chartered Banks, which were until 1944, permitted to print their own legal tender, invariably featured effigies of the doyens of Canadian banking. Since 1870, when the Dominion of Canada began issuing banknotes, women other than our present Sovereign appeared on thirteen different bank notes. Queen Mary appeared on no less than five different issues, Princess Louise, vice-regal consort of Governor General Lord Lorne, appeared on the 1878 issue of the $1 bill, and Princess Patricia, daughter of the Duke of Connaught, Canada’s Governor General from 1911 to 1916, patroness of the famed Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), adorned the 1917 one dollar banknote. The reactionary socialists amongst us would no doubt promptly point out that these women, the first women to adorn our currency, were all born into high social positions and privilege – ignoring the role that Princess Louise played founding the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, and the more poignant story of Princess Louise renouncing her title to marry the man she loved, not to mention the lifetime devotion to the PPCLI and veterans of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, long after it was de rigueur. No doubt it would also be pointed out that these women were also “British” in the pejorative sense – ignoring the reality that all Canadian citizens remained British subjects until 1977, which also means Viola Desmond, who died in 1965, was born and died a British subject. 

The redesign of Canada’s paper (now polymer) currency is a normal occurrence, to combat not only counterfeiting, but also to reflect the changing views of the country. “A bank note is a medium of exchange, a cultural artifact, a national symbol, and a communications vehicle,” we learn from The Art and Design of Canadian Bank Notes, published by the Bank of Canada in 2006. There would be little gained from falling into the US model of retaining the same paper (theirs is still partly cotton rag) currency designs with slight modifications. 

Since the establishment of the Bank of Canada in 1935, Canadian banknotes have included portraits of the Sovereign, and briefly, in 1935, other members of the Royal Family as well. It was also in 1935 that Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier made their first appearance on Government of Canada legal tender. This would continue with the 1937 series in which Macdonald adorned the $100 bill, while Laurier was placed on the elusive $1,000 bill. Following the death of King George VI it was necessary to issue a new series displaying the new Sovereign, and in 1954 a new series was released, the Canadian Landscape Series bearing the Karsh portrait of Queen Elizabeth II engraved by George Gunderson. 

When the Bank of Canada and the Department of Finance began examining the redesign of Canada’s banknotes in 1963-4 — what would become known as the Scenes of Canada series — the original plan was to maintain the tradition and only display the effigy of the Queen, but the Minister, Edgar Benson, decided that prime ministers should appear on some notes, in Presidential style. “Benson … asked that the new bank notes include portraits of former Canadian prime ministers to reflect Canada’s burgeoning national identity.” The Queen was to be retained on the most widely-circulated notes, the $1, $2 and $20, as well as on the highest note, the $1,000, while prime ministers would find their way onto the $5 (Laurier), $10 (Macdonald), $50 (Mackenzie King) and $100 (Borden), the distribution of prime ministers that continues to this day. With the discontinuation of $1 and $2 bills in 1989 and 1996 respectively, the Queen remained only on the $20 and the $1,000, although the latter was withdrawn from circulation in 2000. 

While Viola Desmond may seem on the surface a superlative choice, her story is rather detached from the Rosa Parks comparison that is invariably made. Certainly, she failed to pay the unjust and racial tariff placed upon African-Canadians to sit in a certain part of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow in November 1946, and yes she went to court to plead her case. But after the case was over and done with, Desmond faded into obscurity. She did not make it a lifetime objective to champion the rights of blacks, her fellow African-Canadians as we would say today. She simply returned to her beauty product business. 


AN AFRICAN-CANADIAN who had a far greater influence was Carrie Best. Born in New Glasgow in 1903, Best devoted her life to advancing the cause of equality for women, African-Canadians and Indigenous people. Best’s biography is littered with the obligatory “firsts,” but beyond this her enduring passion for advancing the rights of marginalized communities shines through. Wife, mother of one and foster mother of four, she and her son, J. Calbert (a future federal deputy minister and Canadian High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago), were arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in December 1941, and each was charged, convicted, and fined for disturbing the peace. This was five years years prior to Viola Desmond’s now-famous arrest. 

In 1946, Best founded The Clarion, the first black-owned publication in Nova Scotia, and through this medium she helped to reveal the degree of segregation and racism that existed in Nova Scotia at the time. Indeed it was Best’s newspaper and reporting that helped to chronicle and record the plight of Viola Desmond. Six years later, in 1952, she started a radio program, “The Quiet Corner,” which aired for 12 years and was broadcast on four stations throughout the Maritimes, as she recounted in her autobiography, That Lonesome Road.(3) She would then go on to work as a reporter for the Pictou Advocate and she would also write for the province’s main daily paper, The Halifax Chronicle Herald

Best made it her cause to fight for the rights of African-Canadians, and by all accounts she was one of those leaders who had the ability to mobilize and energize her fellow citizens in a sustained manner. Her efforts were not limited to the overt racism that African-Canadians experienced; she worked with various women’s groups and the Mi’kmaq, the Indigenous peoples of Nova Scotia (That Lonesome Road, p. 58). Best’s investigative work helped to uncover the intentional use of municipal property tax rates upon residents of the Vale Road in New Glasgow to either expropriate, or purchase below market value, land that was highly sought after for industrial development. Best’s various crusades against injustice were broad in scope and not limited to the African-Canadian community alone. 

Best died in 2001 after a storied and highly accomplished life at the age if 98. She was a much-beloved figure in her community and home province, and one who had been nationally recognized for her contributions. She was one of the first African-Canadians appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada (1974), and promoted as an Officer (1979). The Order of Canada and an honorary doctorate in civil laws from the University of King’s College rank amongst her most significant official honours. 

CARRIE BEST (1903-2001)

It is unfair that Best has been relegated to a now-outdated 59¢ postage stamp issued in 2011, while Viola Desmond, historically a lesser figure, will reign over the $10 bill for a decade or more. Best contributed a lifetime of service to many communities and made a local, provincial, and national impact, a legacy that deserves to be celebrated and remembered. Desmond’s experience may well make for the picture-perfect Hollywood moment — the saccharine Heritage Minute that was released in 2016 – but it is largely an invented tradition derived and transposed from the American experience of Rosa Parks. 

The displacement of Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King from our printed currency is disappointing to those who believe heritage is important. Both made outstanding contributions to Canada’s growing independence and identity, especially during the First and Second World Wars. Of course, in French Canada neither figure is remembered fondly, in large part in association with conscription and the war effort. The increasingly distant wars of the last century resonate less and less with a public largely ignorant of their pivotal role in forming the country we now live in, and their disappearance from the currency will do little to halt this trend.

A MIDDLE PATH might have been devised to allow for the retention of the Head of State or former distinguished Heads of Government on one side of the notes, and other important historical figures on the reverse sides — interspersed with the flora and fauna that have been a staple of our banknotes since 1954. One also must wonder how long it will be before Pierre Elliott Trudeau (aka Trudeau I) makes an appearance on our currency or indeed before the effigy of the monarch is banished from the coins of the realm— a step that could logically be taken only if and when Canada becomes a republic, but which is more likely to occur at the inevitable next change in reign. It is conceivable that Trudeau I will appear on our currency in time for the 40th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 2022. 

Originally published in The  Dorchester Review, Vol. 7 No. 1,  Spring/Summer 2017, pp. 47-49.
1. The Simpsons, Season 3, Episode 24, “Brother, Can you Spare Two Dimes?” re: “the C. Montgomery Burns award for outstanding achievement in the field of excellence.”
2. Rosemary Sadlier, Leading The Way: Black Women in Canada (Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1994), p. 28.
3.  Carrie M. Best, That Lonesome Road; The Autobiography of Carrie M. Best (New Glasgow: Clarion Press, 1977), p. 97.

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