The Bank of Canada has put the first woman on Canadian currency. After months of debate the choice was made and in 2018 civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond will be on our $10 dollar bill. I agree she is a very worthy choice and a great improvement over the drunken mug of John A Mcdonald.
Viola Desmond became a key player in Canadian history when she refused to move from the whites only section of a movie theatre in Nova Scotia. Her story has become a part of the historical text of Canada. Her actions will not be forgotten.
Although the honour is well deserved and her families and communities should be justifiably proud, her selection fits into the essential Canadian narrative. Canadians like to bemoan their lack of identity but from an Indigenous perspective, let me tell you, we know who you are.
The one agreed upon characteristic of Canadian identity is that “Canadians are so humble.” As I like to say, “Canadians sure love to brag about how humble they are.” Although the phrase has only recently been created in the wake of social media Canada invented “the Humble Brag”.
Now when Canadians have to explain the new face on the $10 dollar bill they can use the phrase “She is like Canada’s Rosa Parks.” This should explain things to most and for others you may have to say, “Rosa Parks was the African American woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus. Her actions were an essential component in America’s civil rights movement. The concept of refusing to move to the back of the bus became a metaphor for any action in which you were expected to be treated as second class.”
Desmond's act can be seen in the same light – refusal to be treated as anything less than equal. Where the humble brag component enters the discussion is that Desmond took her seat in 1946 and Rosa Parks refused to give hers up in 1955. So Canadians can feel humbly superior, once again, to our neighbours in the south.
The second part of Canadian identity is the denial of Indigenous history and in particular acts of genocide, racism and segregation that occurred or exist in this country. Most of us Indigenous and Non were all indoctrinated into this Canadian identity by learning a history that was incomplete or manipulated. In most instances in order for an Indigenous person to learn the truth they have to learn from oral history and from their own research.
So when the story of Viola Desmond entered my life I learned a bit of my own history. Historica Canada is an organization which creates vignettes about Canadian history and a few years back produced an episode about Desmond. It came onto the screen while I was visiting my mother Nellie in Grand Rapids, MB and we were likely watching something incredibly Canadian such as Hockey or Curling. After the vignette played my mother said something like, “I did the same thing in The Pas but I doubt they are going to put me on TV.” And then she laughed her wonderful laugh.
I knew she wasn’t lying. So I wasn’t laughing. She explained that when we lived in The Pas there was a white’s only section at the local theatre. She said she went to sit in the Whites only section because it had the best seat available.
I have vague memories of my time in The Pas, being only 5 or 6 years of age. Or rather I have vague memories of having any contact with Non-Native people and can only really remember having experiences with other Metis and First Nations children in the collection of row houses in which we were all lumped together.
I began to research this historical fact and came upon this reference from Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.
"At the (Lido) movie theatre, each group sat on its own side; in at least one of the bars, Indians were not allowed to sit in certain areas"
This was the reality in 1971 and the reason the inquiry was looking at this point in history is that this was when Helen Betty Osbourne was murdered. The young girl from Norway House was attending school in The Pas when she was raped and brutally murdered. Her murder was not investigated for years although it had become an open secret in the town. Everyone knew the truth. Yet the truth was also – “Who cares she’s just an Indian Girl.”
Today segregation is no longer accepted although whether it is tolerated is another question. The issue of murdered and missing Indigenous woman and girls continues to haunt our communities.
Though the new $10 bill will mark a victory for Black Civil Rights and for women in Canada it is not a time for Canadians to humbly brag about their superiority. The brave act of Viola Desmond may have been nearly 10 years before Rosa Parks. But 25 years after her defiance of whites only seating in a Nova Scotia theatre that racist segregation still existed against Indigenous Peoples in The Pas, Manitoba. And for the years since and continuing today the national tragedy of Murdered and Missing women and girls remains. A tragedy that exists in a country that still draws racial lines.