Viola Desmond will be the first Canadian woman on a Canadian banknote starting in 2018. Most Canadians have no idea who she was. The name does not ring a bell for the average citizen. She was not an inventor or political leader, rather a humble Civil Rights activist from Nova Scotia. Let’s take a look at what this means for Canadians.
Canada too Had Black Segregation Laws Many Times Forgotten
Desmond was just one of many black Canadians who was subjected to racism and ultimately segregation. Most Canadians would doubt that Canada went through some of the same problems the United States did in segregation and racism against blacks. They are constantly reminded of the First Nations and Metis experience.
Since the beginning of the end of the transatlantic slave trade in the late 18th century, slaves have been making their way to Nova Scotia in search of a better life. In 1808 the British Parliament passed The Slave Trade Act, ending the buying and selling, not ownership of slaves. Perhaps best known to most Canadians was the story in Book of Negros in which Aminata Diallo escapes slavery in South Carolina for a life of freedom in Nova Scotia.
Just because slavery did not start a Civil War in Canada doesn’t mean that everything was perfect north of the border. Racism against blacks is quietly pushed under the rug in this country, which is why few people have heard of or can remember being taught the story of the ‘Canadian Rosa Parks.’
Blacks faced many of the adversities in Canada that they did in The United States, from segregation to black codes, to social norms that viewed them as less than intellectual than whites. They were viewed as a class below, not out of personal vendettas, simply that is the way people felt.
Banknotes and Coins have Featured Women Before
The first Canadian woman to appear on a Canadian banknote is fitting. Although the Queen has graced many a banknote portrait, this is the first representation of a “normal Canadian.” No disrespect is intended. Viola was a Canadian citizen. She was not a celebrity or a politician.
In both Canada and The United States there is the overwhelming feeling that politicians of old just deserve to be featured on banknotes and coins. That is their place in history. It is not to be discussed or argued, simply accepted. Most are not aware that presidents and prime ministers are rather new inclusions to our coins and currency.
Mid 20th century American coins featured personifications of liberty in the female form. Prior designs featured a female native with intricate headdress in the Indian Cent and the bust of Lady Liberty on Half Cents all the way to Silver Dollars of the 18th century. Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars also personified this beautiful celebration of democracy.
Canadian examples have featured the royal family of England up to the various animals and natural themes that are enigmatic of this country. Dominion of Canada banknotes also featured the personification of Lady Liberty like their southern neighbors. The appearance of Sir John A McDonald, Wilfred Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and Robert Borden is relatively new to banknotes since 1975 and 1976.
Today Sensitivity is Key, but Values are Changing
Fascinatingly the public has spoken out for a change in coin and currency designs. One might attribute this to a more liberal and socially aware society in which Canadian historical figures involved in our currency were openly racist in the American case were actually slave owners. There is likely some fuel to that argument.
Rather, I would argue that the changes are natural. Not only do they reflect an obvious change in demographics and immigration, especially in Canada which relies on immigration each year to maintain a stable population, but they also reflect historic changes in times and ideas.
Major historical events have shaped and changed coin and currency designs
I believe what makes this case so incredible is that Viola Desmond took a radical stand more than ten years before it was beginning to take shape. The Civil Rights Movement exploded in the 1950s and came to fruition in the 1960s. In 1946, just a year after the end of the Second World War, a black woman had the courage to stand up against the institution of racism.
First Nations and Aboriginal Women Should be Next – Will it Achieve a Positive Goal?
The next likely candidate for a portrait change on a Canadian banknote will be a First Nations, Metis, or Inuit woman. Canadians, before white Europeans came to this land are still here and in many cases struggling to survive. In many respects they still deal with the institutionalized government decisions Desmond fought against.
The portrait of an Aboriginal Canadian would likely lead to further awareness of Canadian Aboriginals in the classroom and social circles for the short-term. One has to wonder if there is any chance it will make a significant social impact on that community.
Notice though that I have said, a Canadian Aboriginal woman. There is no mention of specifics because that is how far removed Canadians are from the famous contributors to the country within the First Nations and Metis landscape. This is little different than Viola’s story. I wouldn’t mind entertaining such a radical candidate as Helen Betty Osborne, though only if her family approved.
Viola Desmond’s Legacy on a Canadian Banknote
What good does being on a banknote do though? Did Abraham Lincolns’ portrait on the Five Dollar Bill or One Cent Coin stop incidents of violence over race? Did the appearance of William Lyon McKenzie King lead to more students familiarized with the role he played in bringing further economic and industrial attention to the neglected Prairies?
Will Viola Desmond change anything for black Canadians? One might even question if there is anything that even needs changing. Though that question probably resides outside of the black Canadian diaspora.
I have to wonder if Change would ever be the intention. Inclusion on banknotes and coins is a matter of respect for historic figures, hallmark places, memorable time periods, and events that impacted people forever. A change has already occurred that has lead to the development of this banknote in the first place.