Viola Desmond: Portrait of the CAD$10 bill
To celebrate and honour Canada’s African Heritage Month, Cape Breton University hosted community advocates Graham Reynolds and Wanda Robson; and playwright and actor Leslie McCurdy.
February 24, McCurdy took the stage for her self-written play, “Things My Fore-Sisters Saw”. Having written four one-woman plays that she performs herself, she has been involved with theatre for the past 20 years. She has also appeared in many movies and television shows. She has performed ‘Things My Fore-Sisters saw at British Columbia’, across Ontario and is going to travel throughout the Maritimes for the next two weeks for the same. Things My Fore-Sisters Saw is a compelling tale about 4 pillars which helped shape Black-Canadian history – Mary-Joseph Angelique, Rose Fortune, Mary Ann Shadd and Viola Desmond.
Wasn’t there supposed to be a $20 U.S. bill for Harriet Tubman? What happened? McCurdy: “Trump happened!”
Marie-Joseph Angelique was an enslaved Black woman who was allegedly charged with arson for starting a fire that burned down most of Old Montreal. She allegedly committed the “crime” whilst trying to flee from her bondage, she was owned by Thérèse de Couagne de Francheville. Following that, she was tortured and hanged. Her crimes still remain unproved but she’s now the face of Black resistance and resilience.
Rose Fortune was a well-known Black Loyalist and an entrepreneur. She was 10 when she settled in Nova Scotia. A strong woman, she started her own baggage-carting business along Annapolis Royal’s waterfront, toting goods and luggage in a wheelbarrow. She’s also widely recognized as Canada’s first policewoman.
Mary Ann Shadd was an anti-slavery activist and an advocate of women’s rights. She was the founder and editor of Provincial Freeman, a newspaper for the Black community in Canada. She also opened a school for Black refugees in Windsor.
Finally, Viola Desmond. Viola Desmond represents courage and dignity for all African Canadians. She was a pioneer businesswoman who was jailed, convicted and fined for 1¢ when she refused to leave a whites-only movie theatre in Nova Scotia.
Viola Desmond fought against racial segregation and is now honoured on the new $10 Canadian Bill for her bravery.
In a question-answer session after the play, McCurdy gave an insight about how she led to on to adapting these stories about these tremendous (mostly under looked) women.
McCurdy: ‘Viola Desmond was suggested to me. I do another play about Harriet Tubman which was taken into schools and students said to me ‘wow that’s a cool way to learn history. Can you write another play?!’ I decided to write another play, I had this concept where I was going to do it about American women because that was my experience with Black history. However, then my cousin suggested that I should do one about Black Canadian history and my first response literally was ‘we have that?’ which was ridiculous because my own standing in Canada is Black Canadian history. So, he suggested the women to me and then I sought out to research them. Researching them was not an easy endeavor. The only person who was easy to research was Mary Ann Shadd because she was an educator and a writer, and all of her stuff is archived at the University of Windsor. At the time when I wrote it, there was only one book about Marie-Joseph Angelique, and it was in the Ontario archives in French. So, I had to travel to Ottawa, check the book out, send it to somebody, pay them to translate it for me just so I could know any of the story. Since that time (about 10-12 years ago), another book was written by a researcher named Afua Cooper called the Hanging of Angelique with a much more complete and compressive history not only Angelique and her life situation but the development of slavery in Canada so that’s a really good book to read. To learn anything about Rose-Fortune and Viola Desmond, I had to travel here to Nova Scotia. The only resource I could find about Rose Fortune was a movie called Walking Stick to Freedom (located at Black Culture Centre, Dartmouth). I visited Dartmouth two years ago and they don’t even know what happened to that DVD. Moreover, to know anything about Viola Desmond, I interviewed Wanda. I also made sure to write that in the play, as a tribute to the fact that she helped me out with her sister. So, you know, that’s how I came upon it.’
In a pre-event before Things My Fore-Sisters saw, Wanda Robson had a book signing and a $10 bill exchange. Wanda Robson was raised and born in Halifax, is a CBU Alumni and is the youngest sister of Viola Desmond. She’s the author of a 2010 book, ‘Sister to Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada’s Rosa Parks’.