Desmond announcement uplifting for African Nova Scotians

By Lois Ann Dort    

GUYSBOROUGH – Last week Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz announced that the first Canadian woman to be featured on the $10 bill would be Viola Desmond, a civil rights activist from Nova Scotia.

Desmond challenged segregation in 1946 when she sat in the “whites only” section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. She was removed from the theatre by police, jailed and convicted on a charge of tax evasion -- a conviction which she appealed, bringing the issue of racial segregation to the courts.

Desmond died in 1965 but awareness of her story and the role she played in the civil rights movement has increased over the past 10 years in Nova Scotia. The decision to honour her stand against segregation on the $10 bill has been greeted positively and with pride in Nova Scotia.

Guysborough County has a significant African Nova Scotian population and is home to the Afrikan Canadian Heritage and Friendship Centre in the village of Guysborough. Patsy Borden, program leader for the Centre, said of the announcement, “I think it is a remarkable milestone. It is great.” She added that it was fitting for recognition of Desmond’s place in civil rights history to be nation-wide and noted that last year the local community honoured her achievement with a seat dedication in the Performance Centre in Guysborough.

When asked why, among the many women nominated for the honour, she thought Desmond was chosen to be the first Canadian woman depicted on a Canadian bill, Borden said, “It was fitting, she set the bar on the stand against racial segregation. She was a civil rights icon.”

While discussion of the civil rights movement typically focuses on events in the United States and is synonymous with names like Rosa Parks, Borden hopes that with this honour, Desmond’s story will be known by every Canadian. “When we think about Rosa Parks, they say she was the mother of civil rights; that was in 1955. With Viola that was in 1946. We are looking at nine years in the difference...Now she will be recognized for the stance she did take and every Canadian will know.”

Sheila Pelly, deputy warden of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough and the council representative for African Nova Scotian communities in the municipality, said the announcement was uplifting for the African Nova Scotian community. “We are looking forward to the time when it is circulating across Canada.

“For Viola Desmond to be on the $10 bill, it is uplifting for African Nova Scotians because...how often do you hear of African Nova Scotian being on the face of anything?

“I think this gives some recognition to African Nova Scotians and diversity of all sorts. How often do we get acknowledged for anything really?” added Pelly.

Growing up Pelly knew Desmond’s story but says it has only been in recent years that this piece of Nova Scotian history has been widely publicized in the province. The increased awareness is widely due to a push from Desmond’s family, particularly her sister Wanda Robson, to see Desmond’s role in history acknowledged.

Pelly says that in light of this honour, she hopes that the Viola Desmond story will be known across Canada.