Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Viola Desmond – the first (non-Royal) solo woman on a Canadian bank note
The new Canadian $10 bill has been released and it is visually impressive. It is of course plastic, see-through and has a woman’s face on one side.
Canadians are accustomed to seeing the Queen on their money and have even seen the ‘famous 5’ – women who actually had to fight to have women declared ‘persons’ in the British North America (BNA) Act.
On this new $10 note, we have now met Nova Scotian Viola Desmond. On the reverse, we enjoy the visually spectacular Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). Unsurprisingly, these two images go hand-in-hand.
The CMHR is a remarkable building, strategically located in the ‘Forks’ district of Winnipeg by the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. This also represents a meeting of cultures (English, French, Metis, First Nations) and the centre of the country.
Women are People!
So why Ms. Desmond?
In a rough analogy she has been called ‘the Canadian Rosa Parks’ (Ms. Park famously sat in a ‘whites-only’ section on a bus in Alabama in 1955). Viola Desmond somewhat inadvertently sat in a ‘whites-only’ section of a New Glasgow, NS movie theatre in 1946. Tickets for the lower level of the cinema were more expensive (and not available to her); she was in fact charged with not paying sufficient tax.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Oh, and she was black. Or at least had a black father.
This opens a broader discussion of racism and the history of slavery in Canada and its two governing empires – French and British – and of course the relationship with the United States.
Firstly, for whomever perpetuates the myth that enslavement never existed in Canada is wrong. The institution did exist and was perpetrated under both colonial powers and in conjunction with the other colonies to the south. This is a fact.
*And, yes, a google search will confirm the existence of slavery among First Nations groups. This is an entirely different anthropological question.
When discussing ‘slavery’ in the Americas we generally understand the chattel enslavement of people – predominantly of African origin – during the 300+ year European colonial period. The trans-Atlantic slave trade.
‘Colonial Canada’ in all its early forms was predominantly a land of hunting, fishing, lumber and a French-feudal construct. I would expect quite miserable.
The French did bring enslaved people with them. So did the British. And then, after American independence in 1776 the Empire Loyalists brought their chattel north. Slave ships never arrived to Canadian shores, but enslaved people were bought and sold in New France, Acadia, Nova Scotia and elsewhere in the colonies.
One may argue conditions were better. Slaves were permitted to marry and participate in religion. But this sort of argument is painful.
Viola Desmond is important at many levels. She was from a mixed-race family (presumably rare in the 1940’s), was a business person and lived in a province that once had the largest black community in the dominion. Many arrived as liberated slaves from the USA, but nevertheless lived with segregation, particularly in Halifax.
Canada has a rich history of segregation. One need look no further than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to understand the horrors enacted upon the original inhabitants of the land to understand why some are bitter towards the Canadian State.
Indeed Chinese labourers lived pure racism when building Canada’s trains (1/2 normal wages and a head tax for bringing their spouse) and Japanese Canadians were rounded up into concentration camps during World War Two.
These are all facts. There is no ‘but elsewhere it was worse.’ This is Canada’s national conversation and – may I argue – it is Canada’s opportunity.
Denying past is a nationalist-populist tool. When one speaks of ‘freedom,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘rights,’ etc, what does that mean? At the very least, in must be an argument for true and equal access to opportunity. To feel safe to walk down the street and not to be judged for something beyond one’s control.
To clarify, beyond one’s control is quite simple; ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or gender identification, place of birth, economic status at birth, height, disability – really anything one is born into.
The rest is up for debate. Faith, inheritance, kindness, respect, responsibility, work ethic … please do not mistake tolerance and judgement. If you somehow feel you are owed something, have a good look around. This call for equality in no way precludes personal responsibility – it honours it!
“Conquistadors’ abuses of Amerindians”
The chattel enslavement of the colonial period may be the greatest of many great crimes in human history. France banned it on it’s home territory, but became rich from slave labour abroad. By 1794 slavery was banned across the French Empire, until Napoleon tried to bring it back.
The British Empire finally moved beyond enslavement in the 1830’s but remained involved at many economic levels. The institution caused the most violent war in US history in the 1860’s. Cuba and then Brazil carried on buying and selling people until nearly the 1900’s.
There is a fairly common meme floating about that goes; “no one who was enslaved or owned a slave is any longer alive, so get over it….” If only it were that simple.
Segregation in many forms has existed legally into my lifetime in places I have lived (in Canadian residential schools and in Northern Ireland voting rights).
I like the new $10 note because it made me read – or rather reread – some of this history. If we do not know where we have come from, we will not know where we are going.
Understanding how recently all of this injustice has been part of our social fabric should help in understanding current divisions in our society.
We try to use the ‘smell test.’ If is smells like intolerance, it probably is.
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