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The cash was flowing at the Delmore (Buddy) Daye Learning Institute Monday afternoon.
From what I could see no loonies or toonies changed hands, although there was surely a $5 bill or so, since a pair of them would get a person one of those freshly minted $10 bills that everyone had been waiting for.
They’re on my desk as I write this, crisp, pretty much unsullied by human hands, possibly the newest bank bills I’ve ever touched.
Even if they weren’t fresh off the presses these sawbucks would still be special.
Monday, you see, the first vertical bank note in the country’s history, as well as the first bill carrying the image of a Canadian woman, went into circulation.
All that was reason enough for a room-full of people to mark the occasion at the Daye Institute.
Except the bill’s front features not just a 1951 map of the North End of Halifax, but also the face of a woman who made her life in that community.
So, you understand the size of the crowd, and also the mood in the room, where people embraced and cheers of joy were shed.
She was known as Viola Davis when she grew up with her parents and 14 siblings at the corner of Gerrish and Gottingen streets, just blocks from the event.
But by the time she had opened her cosmetics business above a nearby delicatessen she was Viola Desmond, a businesswoman on the way up, even in less-than-enlightened post-war Halifax.
What I mean to say is that this woman was a figure to be reckoned with — the owner of The Desmond Studio of Beauty Culture on Gottingen — even before her car developed trouble around New Glasgow on Nov. 8, 1946.
She was 32 then. To kill time while her car was being repaired, she decided to see what was playing at Roseland Theatre, where, unknown to her, the white people sat on the main floor, and the blacks up in the balcony.
What happened next has passed into legend.
How, nine years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, Desmond went downstairs to the main floor of the Roseland, so that her weak eyes could make out the screen.
Everyone by now in this province must know how the owners called the cops, and how Desmond ended up spending the night in jail.
The courts ruled against her when she appealed.
But her face—Mona Lisa half-smile, her eyes gazing frankly out, as if she has seen some things—was chosen to grace the $10 bill because, as Christine Hanson, director of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission put it Monday, Desmond showed the world “the power of a small courageous act.”
Desmond’s sister Wanda Robson, who, as much as anyone kept her story alive all these years, fittingly received the first Desmond $10 bill at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg.
Every time someone uses one, Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz said, they will be reminded of the country’s “continued pursuit of human rights and social justice.”
In Halifax — 62 years after her small courageous act, 53 years after she died, and eight years after her posthumous pardon by the provincial government — Desmond’s name and face are everywhere this week: a round table discussion about civil rights in Nova Scotia and Canada; spoken word performances exploring her legacy; a musical tribute as well as an original musical about her life; a pop-up market involving African Nova Scotian vendors, in honour of Desmond’s entrepreneurial spirit.
I may not make any of those other events. So I count myself lucky to have sat in that room on Monday, to feel her spirit still live after all these years, to see a taped film clip of Wanda Robson, who I have known for a long time, talk about her sister and how this latest honour from the people of Canada has touched her so.
And of course I’ve got two of the first $10-bills to be adorned by Desmond’s face.
Monday we heard that when she beat out more than 26,000 public submissions to become the first Canadian woman on a bank note, some people said, who was this woman from Halifax?
By now they may know: she was Viola Desmond, and no one told her what she could do and where she could go.