Desmond’s story went largely untold for a half-century, but in recent years she has been featured on a stamp, and her name graces a Halifax harbour ferry. There are plans for a park in Toronto and streets in Montreal and Halifax to bear her name.
Chelsea Clinton tweeted Tuesday about her story after the Bank of Canada shared a short video earlier this month of Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson, reacting emotionally to a sneak peek of the bill.
“This is beyond lovely,” Clinton tweeted on Tuesday. “Thank you Wanda Robson. Honored to share Viola Desmond’s story in #ShePersistedAroundTheWorld can’t wait to see the new Canadian $10 bill on my visit to Toronto next month!”
Isaac Saney, a senior instructor of Black studies at Dalhousie University, said many Canadians are unaware that slavery and segregation existed here, and often know more about U.S. civil rights icons than those in Canada.
“We know more about Rosa Parks than Viola Desmond,” he said. “We know more about Martin Luther King than perhaps we know about W.P. Oliver,” he said referring to social justice advocate and reverend Dr. William Pearly Oliver.
But the new bank note could change that, helping Canadians learn about civil rights north of the border, he said.
“When young people see Viola Desmond they’ll be able to ask ‘Who is this particular person,’ so it becomes a teachable moment,” Saney said.
Desmond’s story started with a business trip 71 years ago. Desmond, a beautician and entrepreneur from north end Halifax who sold her own line of cosmetics, was headed to Sydney, N.S., when her car broke down. Stuck in New Glasgow overnight, she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre.
The segregated theatre relegated black patrons to the balcony, while floor seating was reserved for whites. Desmond, who was shortsighted and could not see properly from the back, sat in the floor section and refused to leave.
She was dragged out of the theatre by police, arrested, thrown in jail for 12 hours and fined.
“Viola Desmond carried out a singular act of courage,” Saney said. “There was no movement behind her, she was ahead of the times.”
It would take 63 years for Nova Scotia to issue Desmond, who died in 1965, a posthumous apology and pardon.