Column: New banknote helps illuminate our history

Viola Desmond, the first woman other than the queen to be on a Canadian banknote, can teach us something about our past.

Viola Desmond will grace the new $10 bill.

Viola Desmond will grace the new $10 bill.

I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: the fact I didn’t know who Viola Desmond was until last week, or that I was unaware that Canada had racially segregated movie theatres as recently as 1946.

I learned about both when the Bank of Canada unveiled its new $10 bill on Friday. It features, for the first time in Canadian history, the face of a woman other than the queen: Viola Desmond.

I like history and believe that understanding our past makes us better equipped to deal with the present and better prepared for the future.

So I was annoyed at this gap in my knowledge of Canada.

But that wasn’t the only hole. Equally troubling was the fuzzy familiarity of the other four finalists, each a significant contributor to Canada’s evolution as a country.

E. Pauline Johnson might be the best known here on the West Coast. The poet and performer helped set the tone for early Canadian literature. Her ashes are in Stanley Park, near where a monument was erected in 1922 to celebrate her life and her work.

Fanny Rosenfeld (or “Bobbie” as she was better known) was a ground breaking athlete who was part of the first female contingent to compete at an Olympic Games. Despite objections from even Canada’s athletic establishment, she joined a track team of six Canadian women at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. She was narrowly edged to win silver in the 100-metre sprint, and won gold in the 4×100-metre relay.

Not only was she a phenomenal athlete, she was a vocal defender of women in sport at a time when many felt they had no place on the track.

Elsie MacGill was another trail blazer in a male-dominated world. She was the first female aeronautical engineer in Canada and played a critical role in the early development of Canada’s aviation industry. During the Second World War, she was a driving force behind Canadian production of the storied Hawker Hurricane, earning the nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes.” Throughout her life she remained a strong voice for equality and an advocate for women’s rights.

Idola Saint-Jean is likely better known in Quebec where she helped reshape that province’s political landscape. But her influence and advocacy for women’s equality is felt across the country. Although women earned the right to vote nationally in 1918, it would be another 22 years before the same right was granted provincially. Earning that right took work, and at the fore of the battle was Saint-Jean. She was insistent on change, mobilizing support in a slow, but relentless drive that also swept away other discriminatory measures in Quebec law. She died in 1945, shortly after joining women from across Quebec who voted for the first time in a provincial election in 1944.

Viola Desmond also took a stand for what she believed in. In 1946, the young businesswoman decided to catch a movie in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia while waiting for her car to be repaired. She chose to sit on the main level despite being told that, as a black woman, she could only sit in the balcony. She refused and was subsequently dragged from the theatre by police. Injured in the confrontation, she was charged and held in jail overnight. But with determined dignity, she sat upright in her cell until her trial the following day. Without access to legal representation, she was convicted and fined.

Still, the fight didn’t end there. As word spread about her treatment, support grew – particularly in the large Nova Scotia black community. Community mobilization was more effective than Desmond’s legal efforts, however, and in 1954 the mounting pressure formally ended segregation in Nova Scotia.

In 2010 Desmond earned a posthumous pardon and the acknowledgement that her defiant stand had brought to light an ugly reality in Canadian society.

All five women were remarkable individuals, and it is unfortunate that their names were absent from my education growing up. It’s often said that history is written by the victors. And for women in a male-dominated world, that often means their stories are not told, or not given the prominence they deserve.

The decision to put Viola Desmond’s face on a $10 bill is a small gesture. But if it helps draw attention to the enormous contributions Canadian women have made in shaping this country, it is money well spent.

~ Greg Knill is editor of the Chilliwack Progress