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Vicky Mochama: The voice of Metro News.

Viola Desmond’s face is small comfort for the economically deprived in Canada

Some say Desmond’s place on the $10 bill is, at worst, a revision of history, and, at best, an attempt to sweep the uglier parts of our history aside.

Viola Desmond will be the first Canadian woman on a Canadian banknote.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Viola Desmond will be the first Canadian woman on a Canadian banknote.

The decision to put Viola Desmond on the $10 bill is a landmark win for black people and communities of colour in Canada.

But there is no symbolic win powerful enough to justify how racism affected her life and robbed her of her many successes.

Despite being a businesswoman at the heart of Halifax’s black entrepreneurial class, the trial against her ultimately broke her. She died in poverty.

It’s in this way that racism robs families and communities for generations.

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Racism is an economic interest that levies a fine on otherness and punishes those who will not accept the fine. Canada’s government, lawmakers and leaders, have been the enforcers and beneficiaries.

Viola Desmond experienced this viscerally when she was arrested, jailed and fined for refusing to sit in the Rose Theatre’s balcony, which was designated for its black patrons. Her failure, by way of the quotidian act of buying a movie ticket, to acknowledge the racial hierarchy required swift punishment.

Through the police and in the courts, the force of the state was brought in judgment of her blackness. She was fined $26 for “defrauding” the province of its one-cent amusement tax. Six of those dollars were given to the theatre manager. The oppressor was given a bounty for enforcing white supremacy. Inequality of choice was thus compounded.

Some say Desmond’s place on the $10 bill is, at worst, a revision of history, and, at best, an attempt to sweep the uglier parts of our history aside. It’s a specious argument that suggests history is being taught via the medium of our plastic currency. (The symbols on our currency currently include an icebreaker, which replaced the Famous Five, who I would argue were far more groundbreaking than a boat.)

When it comes to money, the ongoing legacy of racism is to deprive communities of colour. According to research by economist Krishna Pendakur, a visible minority man born in Canada earns about 18 per cent less than his Canadian-born white male counterpart. Indigenous Canadians live in a poverty so vast and crushing that it has been called a human-rights crisis.

A 2011 report on Canada’s Colour Coded Labour Market found that poverty rates are three times higher for racialized families. That report also highlights that in 2006, the year of the last longform census, racialized Canadians were earning 81.4 cents to every dollar that non-racialized Canadians made.

Thus racism continues to extract wealth from families. But in recognizing Viola Desmond, at least, a debt is beginning to be paid. 

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