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The First Black Woman To Appear On Canadian Currency Once Challenged Segregation

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Viola Desmond, the first black woman to, black canadian woman, black excellence

Viola Desmond, a black businesswoman from Nova Scotia, will be the first black woman to appear on a Canadian currency. Unfamiliar with Viola’s story? You’re not the only one.

Viola simply wanted to watch a film while on a business trip in New Glasgow, Canada in 1946. The film was The Dark Mirror. Although there were no formal laws regarding segregation in the movie theater, it was common knowledge that the main floor seats were reserved for white patrons while black movie goers were to be seated at the balcony.

Viola was sold a ticket to the balcony, but she sat in the main floor seats. She was unaware of the segregation rules and was shortsighted.

1cent short

She was asked to move but she refused. By that time, she grew aware of why she was being asked to move. Viola was forcibly moved out of the theater, spent 12 hours in jail and paid a $20 fine. She was charged with tax evasion. Why? Because she failed to pay the one-cent difference in tax between the cheaper balcony seats (20 cents for a seat with 2 cent tax) and the floor seats (40 cents for a seat with 3 cent tax).

Viola Desmond, the first black woman to, black canadian woman, black excellence

Canada’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, right, with Wanda Robson in Gatineau, Quebec, last year, after an image of her sister Viola Desmond was chosen to be featured on a new $10 bank note. Credit Chris Wattie/Reuters

Viola decided to fight the charges with the help of her church and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP). The government insisted this was a case of tax evasion. Her lawyer opted for a judicial review of the case. But it was dismissed by Justice William Lorimer Hall, who appeared to have empathized with Viola.

Speaking of the matter, Justice Hall said: “Had the matter reached the court by some other method than certiorari there might have been an opportunity to right the wrong done to this unfortunate woman. One wonders if the manager of the theatre who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide belief that there had been an attempt to defraud the province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavor to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.”

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Viola eventually moved to New York where she died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at the at age of 50 in 1965.

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Posthumous Free Pardon 

On April 14, 2010, Viola Desmond was granted a posthumous free pardon, the first one to be granted in Canada. The pardon was given by Mayann Francis, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, who remarked, “Here I am, 64 years later– a black woman giving freedom to another black woman.” The government of Nova Scotia apologized for the injustice Viola faced.

Now, Viola Desmond will be the first black woman to appear on Canadian currency. The new series of the $10 bills will be released later on this year.