Cranky White Men and Viola Desmond

December 14, 2016 § 4 Comments

Last week, the Canadian government announced a new face for the $10 bill.  Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald (1867-73; 1878-91), has long been featured on the $10, but Canada has sought to modernize our money and to introduce new faces to the $5 and $10 bills.  A decision on the $5, which currently features our first French Canadian PM, Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911), will be made at a later date.

viola-desmond

Viola Desmond will be the face of the $10 bill starting in 2018.  Desmond is a central figure in Canadian history.  On 8 November 1946, Desmond’s car broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.  Desmond was a cosemetician, trained in Montréal and New York, and operated her own beauty school in Halifax. And she was quite successful.  So, stuck in New Glasgow over night, she went to see a movie to kill some time.  She bought her ticket and took her seat.  Desmond was near-sighted, so she sat in a floor seat.  Problem is, she was black. And Nova Scotia was segregated; whites only on the floor, black people had the balcony.  She was arrested.  The next morning, she was tried and convicted of fraud. Not only were black people prohibited from sitting in the main bowl of the theatre, they also had to pay an extra cent tax on their tickets.  Desmond had attempted to pay this tax, but apparently was refused by the theatre.  So, she was fined $20 and made to pay $6 in court costs.

Desmond is often referred to as the ‘Canadian Rosa Parks,’ but truth be told, Rosa Parks is the American Viola Desmond. Unlike Parks, though, Desmond wasn’t a community organizer, she didn’t train for her moment of civil disobedience.  But, Nova Scotia’s sizeable African Canadian community protested on her behalf.  But, not surprisingly, they were ignored.  She also left Nova Scotia, first moving to Montréal, where she enrolled in business college, before settling in New York, where she died on 7 February 1965 of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at the age of 50.

I am on a listserv of a collection of Canadian academics and policy wonks.  I have been for a long time, since the late 1990s.  A discussion has broken out, not surprisingly, about Desmond being chosen as the new face of the $10.  The government initially intended to put a woman on the bill.  A collection of white, middle-aged men on this listserv are not pleased.  They have erupted in typical white, middle-aged male rage.

One complains that the Trudeau government commits new outrages daily and he is upset that “they are going to remove John A. Macdonald from the ten dollar bill to replace him with some obscure woman from Nova Scotia whom hardly anyone has ever heard of.” He also charges that Trudeau’s government would never do this to Laurier (another Liberal), whereas Sir John A. was a Conservative.  On that he’s dead wrong.

Another complains that:

Relative to John A., Viola Desmond is no doubt a morally superior human being. If we are to avoid generating our own version of Trumpism, we must be careful not to tear down symbols of our shared history by applying current, progressive criteria to determine who figures on the currency.

Imagine with what relish Trump would tear into his opponents if the US eliminated George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from their currency. Both were slave owners – presumably far worse crimes in present terms than John A’s alcoholism or casual attitude to bribery.

Seriously. All I can say to this is “Oh, brother.”  But it gets worse.  A third states that:

I have to agree with —–’s sentiment here. We have to stop doing nice, progressive things just because we can. There is a culture war, and we need to be careful about arming the other side.
But I would say that having such things enacted by a government elected by a minority of Canadians doesn’t help. (Likely, the NDP and the Greens and even some Conservatives would have supported such a resolution, but) it does contribute to a sense of government acting illegitimately. It contributes to cynicism and outrage to have Trump as president-in-waiting with fewer votes than Clinton, for example.
With this one, I don’t even know where to start.  Since the advent of a viable, permanent 3rd party in Canadian politics, with the NDP in the 1960s, Canada has had exactly one Prime Minister garner a majority of votes in an election. That was Brian Mulroney in 1984.  he got exactly 50.0% of the vote.
Frankly, a collection of cranky middle-aged white men going on in this manner doesn’t really surprise me.  The first commentator has denigrated Desmond in this manner (“some obscure woman”) in each of his subsequent posts (and has diagnosed me with a variety of psychological problems for deigning to disagree with him).  They, especially the first one, take it as a personal insult that the government should seek to democratize our money, to have the faces on our currency greater reflect the nation, which is one of the most diverse in the world.  For some reason, they see this as an affront, as a challenge to their privilege.
And, thus, they make the perfect argument as to why Viola Desmond should be the face of the new $10 bill in Canada.  I don’t agree that she is obscure, I don’t think many African Canadians, people of colour, or Canadian historians would say so.  This is a positive step on the part of the Canadian government.

 

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§ 4 Responses to Cranky White Men and Viola Desmond

  • And here I was thinking Canada was mostly immune to these silly little squabbles about race.

    That’s some good history you’ve shared about Desmond. I hadn’t heard of her before.

    • Thanks for reading! And, yeah, no. We like to be smug and pretend we’re above all that in Canada, but we’re not. Canada has a long, long history of racism, despite the fact the Underground Railroad terminated in Nova Scotia and Ontario. Our big cities have the same problems as American ones, on a smaller scale; and then there’s how we’ve done over the indigenous population. I could go on for days!

      • I suppose that’s all true, but I still think Canada is a far cry better than America on race relations. I’ve heard that straight from the horse’s mouth aka Canadian minorities. Better does not always equal good or good enough, of course, but I give credit where it’s due.

  • Unless you’re indigenous, yes, I would have to agree Canada does a better job. But that’s also history. The United States is founded upon racism, it perpetuated slavery, and the modern country is still predicated on race and racism. Not that there was no slavery in Canada, but it obviously wasn’t as widespread and it was abolished much earlier. So that helps. Having said that, we also interred the Japanese during the Second World War. We also had racist, exclusionary immigration acts aimed at East and South Asians, and so on. But. Black men are not likely to get shot by the cops in Canada. That’s partially Canadian racism is more insidious and partly due to our relative lack of guns.

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