For most of my adult life, every February I have celebrated and commemorated African (Black) History month with family and friends at community and organizational events across the country. It’s been a precious time to learn of the contributions of African Canadians in the past up to the present, reflect and appreciate their legacy, and instill a strong sense of pride in the minds and hearts of young people, African Canadian youth in particular, most of whom have been unaware of the positive impact of their ancestors and present day heroes on the larger Canadian society.
This year, I join millions of Canadians in celebrating a (s)hero who will never be forgotten for her courage, bravery and sheer “I’ve had enough” attitude who said no to segregation and discrimination. That woman was Viola Irene Desmond, a successful African Canadian business woman – now matriarch of civil rights in Canada – who refused to leave the seat she paid for in the “coloured” section of a New Glasgow movie theatre in 1946. Although it was clearly established she paid for the seat, police officers were called and physically dragged her from the theatre off to jail because she dared to defy a discriminatory and racist practice that was endemic across the country. What I admire most about Viola is how she stood her ground and, with the support of many, pressed on to launch an unsuccessful legal challenge against racism in Nova Scotia. She was posthumously pardoned for the charge of defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia for the tax difference of a balcony versus ground floor ticket, a total of one cent, in 2012.
Over 7 decades later, Viola Desmond’s face will adorn our $10 bill in Canada. Aside from the Queen, a woman has never been on the front of a Canadian bill. The only Canadian women ever represented on Canadian currency were on the back of the $50 banknote, but were replaced with an Arctic ice breaker a few years ago. Having Viola’s image on the face of Canadian currency is a great honour bestowed not only on her family, but an important representation of the struggle, achievements and footprints of African Canadians right across Canada.
There are countless women who are well-deserving of this honour. I am proud that Viola was the first woman chosen as the one to inspire countless women and girls in Canada, to cross the long-established gender divide on our currency, and breaking the barriers of both institutional sexism and racism.
Although I am well aware that this is symbolic, it is a symbol African Canadians will cherish for generations to come. It will be documented in history books, taught by teachers, embraced by all women. It will also provide a source of pride and inspiration for African Canadian youth who so often face a lack of recognition and images that reflect their identity, history and contribution to the national fabric of our great country.
This month and beyond, join me in celebrating the historical women and girls of African ancestry, as well as those who are leading and shaping the history of Canada every day.
As civil rights icon and one of the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s founding mothers, Rosemary Brown, said: “Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it.”
Let’s support women and girls in demanding, like Viola, nothing less than gender equality in all its intersectional expressions.
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