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Viola Desmond, the New Face on the Canadian $10 Bill

Later this year, a new $10 bill design will be put into circulation in Canada. It will feature the image of Viola Desmond, the first Canadian woman to grace Canada's most common currency note. If you've never heard of Viola Desmond, it's not surprising. Americans weren't taught many stories about our own Civil Rights pioneers in school, much less those of Canada's. Desmond was a businesswoman from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who fought against a system of segregation that wasn't covered by Jim Crow laws as it was in the US. But even so, the unwritten rules were enforced in a roundabout way. When she bought a movie ticket, she was sold a balcony ticket because she was black. But she sat on the main floor anyway.   

Desmond was used to finding a way when racially motivated roadblocks were thrown at her. When she was denied entrance to Halifax beauty schools because of her skin color, she trained in Montreal, New York, and New Jersey, then created her own beauty studio and school in Halifax, drawing black women from across Canada's east coast. She also created her own line of black beauty care products. So, being a woman used to making her own path, once Desmond realized she was being discriminated against, she courageously strode back inside the theater to take a seat on the main floor.

She was just settling in to enjoy the movie when she was confronted by the theater manager. Desmond stood her ground, but the police soon arrived and forcibly removed her from the theater, injuring her hip and knee in the process.

She spent the night in jail, though not for disobeying segregation laws; there weren't any. Instead, officials got her on a trumped-up claim of defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia. They alleged that she had failed to pay one cent in amusement tax—that is, the difference in the amount of tax charged on a main floor and balcony seat. Under a 1915 Canadian licensing statute, those who entered a theater without paying the proper amount of amusement tax could be arrested without a warrant and fined.

Read how that turned out for Desmond, and for Canada's history, at Mental Floss.

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