More than 72 years after Viola Desmond was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a theatre in Nova Scotia, her face now smiles upon Canada from the new $10 bill — with a little help from Oak Bay historian Merna Forster.
“When I saw the note, I was impressed. I thought it was stunning, a really good likeness of her,” Forster said after attending the official unveiling of the bill earlier this year in Halifax. “Since she’s a civil rights icon, I thought it was a nice touch to have the Human Rights Museum on the other side.”
In 2013, Forster began a petition for Canadian women to be honoured on the nation’s currency — she didn’t have a preference who. It’s an area she is quite familiar with, having also authored 100 Canadian Heronies and then 100 More Canadian Heroines.
In a 2015 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who then was recently elected — Forster wrote: “Who and what is celebrated on our banknotes matters, as it reflects what we consider important in our culture and history and who we consider worthy of honouring for achievement. Women are not absent from the list of notable worthies in Canada, just notably absent or under-represented in many of the images that surround us and which contribute to our view of the world and our potential role in it.”
By 2016, more than 73,000 people (including Margaret Atwood) signed Forster’s petition and on Nov. 19, 2018, Desmond was finally acknowledged for the change she inspired in Canada.
“I think today with so much racism and Trump’s America, the things that are going on, I think her story inspires people and resonated with them that there was a woman who stood up against racial segregation,” Forster said.
When Desmond was reprimanded for sitting in the whites-only section of a movie theatre, she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat. After she was released from jail, her husband suggested she forget about the incident. But she didn’t, taking the matter to court instead. While her marriage didn’t last, Desmond’s impact on history did.
On March 21, Forster was also honoured for her successful campaign with the Meritorious Service Medal from Governor General Julie Payette. It’s the latest of the historian’s awards for her own mark on Canadian history.
While Desmond is not the first woman to lend her face to Canadian currency — with the Queen and many commemorative collector coins and a short-lived $50 bill showing the Famous Five and activist Thérèse Casgrain — she is the first Canadian woman on a regularly circulating banknote.
“She’s an inspiring person to have on that bill,” Forster said. “I hope in the future, we will have many other notable women from Canadian history on the bills, because one really isn’t enough … It just seems to me it’s so unfortunate many of these amazing women have been forgotten.”
Forster said she hopes that after the national conversation inspired by Desmond and the $10 bill, the stories of more historical Canadian women will be taught in classrooms across the country.