The Canadian 10-dollar bill has had its characteristic purple-dominant colour since the “Bilingual Series” of 1937. In “The First Series,” the Canadian 10-dollar bill had uninspiring design.

So how did it end up purple with Viola Desmond's portrait on the obverse? In this article, we’re going to explore the history of the ever-changing Canadian 10 dollar bill.

1. A new design and face for a new generation of Canadians.

Once upon a time, in a Canadian history undergraduate class, a group of future Canadian historians agreed that the Bank of Canada was making the correct choice to replace Sir John A. McDonald with a face more representative of the nation of Canada in the Twenty-First Century.

The selection process for the face of the new vertically aligned Canadian 10 dollar bill was already underway. While there were many extraordinary Canadians from coast to coast to coast, there was one choice for the new face of the Canadian 10 dollar bill: Viola Desmond.

Simply put, Viola Desmond was a victim of racial discrimination in Canada. However, she stood up for her human rights in the face of racially-fuelled laws. Desmond was a successful black businesswomans who lived and operated her business in North Halifax. Not coincidentally, Desmond’s Canadian 10 dollar bill features an artistic rendering of the North End of Halifax.

When her car had issues in New Glasgow, the repair shop informed Desmond that it would take a day to get the parts. She decided to pass the time by going to a movie, The Dark Mirror, in an empty theatre.

Desmond was near-sighted and sat closer to the screen. She was unaware of the theatre's racially segregated sections.

Desmond’s problems started when staff asked to move. She refused, citing the better view. She then asked to exchange her seat and pay the difference. The theatre declined Desmond wasforcibly removed from the theatre. The results for Viola Desmond: injuries, 12 hours in jail, and a $26 fine for tax evasion. 

Jailed for tax evasion? That’s correct

Authorities charged Desmond with tax evasion of one cent, the difference in government tax between the Whites only seating on the floor and the balcony. Furthermore, Desmond was never informed of her right to legal advice, a lawyer, or bail. This was the impetus for Desmond’s fight for human rights.

Viola Desmond was posthumously honoured for her human rights activism. Since her death she has been granted a free pardon in 2010, the first in Canadian history.

Symbols of freedom on the $10

As a tribute to her work as a Civil Rights activist, Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is featured on Desmond’s Canadian 10 dollar bill.

This Canadian 10 dollar bill is filled with symbolism from the Canadian History of Human Rights:

  • The laurel leaf pattern (an ancient symbol of justice)
  • An image of The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba
  • Criss-crossing ramps connect the seven levels of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
  • A golden eagle feather representing the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. According to First Nations, this bird fllies higher and sees further than the others, representing the ideals of truth, power, and freedom. 

To learn more about Desmond and some of Canada’s Civil Rights warriors, check out the NFB’s Journey to Justice. You can watch Viola Desmond’s Heritage Minute on YouTube.

2. Beautiful British Columbia takes centre stage.

It doesn’t take visitors long to understand why license plates along the Pacific coast state “Beautiful British Columbia.” Every province has its environmental enchantments that often help develop local pride and character.

However, there is something breathtaking about the West Coast regardless of the direction on the compass. This is something that people in Alberta and British Columbia know all too well, having the most outstanding collection of National Parks in their backyards.

The obverse of the 1954 “Canadian Landscape Series” featured the same portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and alignment as every banknote in this series. It continued the purple colour scheme of the Canadian 10-dollar bill.

Yoho National Park is the landscape for the reverse side of the 1954 “Canadian Landscape Series.” The photo used for the engraving was taken for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP Railway). Why? CP Railway used National Parks, like Yoho or sister National Park Banff, as promotional tools for railway tourism.

Canada Pacific Railways often lobbied legislators and industrial leaders to maintain the scenery critical to their business: like maintainingriver flows levels with increasing hydroelectric dam projects. The photo features Mount Burgess and Emerald Lake, allowing Canadians nationwide in the 1950s to bask in the glory Westerns enjoy daily.

3.Speaking of industry and leaders….

In 1969, the Bank of Canada introduced the “Scenes of Canada” Series. The Canadian 10 dollar bill retained purple as its colour but featured a radical new design and was the first to feature Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s problematic First Prime Minister. 

The “Scenes of Canada Series” is breathtaking as far as banknote designs are concerned. For this Canadian 10 dollar bill, the Bank of Canada chose an eastern-based industrial plan with a worldwide reputation.

It features Polymer Corporation Plant in Sarnia, an industrial marvel and played a critical role in the Canadian war effort. The Polymer Corporation was a Crown corporation that created synthetic rubber for the war effort in World War II.

The Polymer Corporation plant represents Sarnia's industrial landscape and environmental transformation. Polymer Corporation's plant was in Sarnia because ofthe regional environmental advantages for production.

However, not all that glitters is gold, and with industrial development comes industrial-scale consequences. Ownership and the name of the synthetic rubber plant may have changed over time. Still, the pollution, chemical spills, and effluent runoff have environmental consequences that come with all the positives from the plant, locally and for the crown corporation. 

The “Scenes of Canada” Canadian 10 dollar bill is a different form of tribute to the Canadian landscape. It shows a landscape heavily modified and impacted by people.

4. The Canadian 10 Dollar bill military tribute returns

After paying tribute to Canadian industrial innovation during the war, the Canadian 10 dollar bill followed the theme from 1986’s “The Birds of Canada” banknote series. This series of Canadian 10 dollar bills featured an osprey in flight on the reverse with Macdonald remaining on the obverse of the note.

The Bank of Canada elected to return to a theme of military remembrance for the “Canadian Journey Series” in 2001. Macdonald and Parliament remained on the obverse, while the engraving on the back featured a collection of images: doves, poppies, people observing a cenotaph, a female naval officer, an army master corporal, and bilingual lines from John McCrae’s In Flanders Field

5. National Parks in the west return to the spotlight.

Did you know that railways and Canada’s National Parks have an interconnected history? I’d hope so. I mention that in point #2 in this article!

The Bank of Canada chose railways and the beautiful scenery of National Parks in the west for engraving on the reverse of the “Frontiers Series” in 2011:

  • The Bank of Canada opted to go North in the Rocky Mountains, using a photo of a VIA Rail passenger train (known as the Canadian) moving through Jasper National Park as the inspiration
  • No specific mountain range is in the background because the mountain skyline is a composite of photos of peaks of the Rockies.

If you want to see vintage Canadian banknotes, go to your bank and withdraw money from your chequing account. See what you get! You might get John A. McDonald in your wallet.

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