Viola Desmond named first Canadian female to appear on Canadian bank note

Viola Desmond After 9 months of public nominations and an Advisory Council shortlist, Finance Minister Bill Morneau has announced that Viola Desmond has been chosen as the face of Canada’s newest issue of bank notes.

On March 8, 2016 (International Women’s day), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Minister of Finance Bill Morneau announced that the image of an iconic Canadian woman will appear on the next issue of banknotes, expected to release in 2018.


“In our country’s nearly 150 year history, women, with the notable exception of the Queen, have largely been unrepresented on our bank notes,” said Minister Morneau in a statement released by the Bank of Canada.

In this same statement, the Bank of Canada invited the public to nominate iconic women who they felt were deserving of this recognition, and launched the #bankNOTEable campaign. After more than 26,300 submissions and 461 nominees, the Advisory Council compiled a long list of 12 women, and eventually a short list of 5, which included Nova Scotia’s Viola Desmond.  

Today, December 8, 2016, Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau, announced that Viola Desmond, Civil rights icon and pioneer Black businesswoman, would be the first woman represented on the newly designed Canadian bank note. The much-anticipated event took place at the Museum of History in Ottawa and among the invited guests was Viola Desmond’s 90-year-old sister, Wanda Robson. Robson spoke briefly to the audience after she unveiled the portrait of Viola Desmond that will appear on the bank note.

Ms. Robson is an author, community activist and resident of North Sydney, Nova Scotia. In 2004 she graduated, at the age 77, with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cape Breton University and since then, has actively campaigned to raise public awareness about Viola Desmond.

Also attending the ceremony was Dr. Graham Reynolds, the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice at Cape Breton University.

“This is an exciting and truly historic moment,” says Dr. Reynolds. “Viola Desmond is the first Canadian woman to be exclusively figured on our bank note, and Minister Morneau’s choice draws national attention to the long and difficult struggle for racial equality and social justice in Canada. Until now, this has been a little known chapter in our history.”

Dr. Reynolds also notes that it is fitting that Wanda Robson unveiled her sister’s portrait as she has been integral in advocating the Viola Desmond story. “Wanda has been instrumental in raising awareness about her Viola and this event is the culmination, in part, of her own personal journey of education, self-discovery, and advocating for social justice.”

Viola Desmond sketch in jail cell Viola Desmond was a businesswoman turned civil libertarian, who many regard as Canada’s Rosa Parks. In 1946, Viola Desmond was wrongfully arrested for refusing to give up her seat in a racially segregated theatre in the town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Her actions inspired later generations of black people in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada. In 2010 the Nova Scotia Government in posthumously granting Viola Desmond a free pardon. This was the first time a free pardon was granted posthumously in Canada.