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Who’s on the ten-dollar bill? Unsung civil rights activists past and present across the border

Photo credit: Bank of Canada

March 15, 2019

By Paulette Thompson

What’s problematic about calling Viola Desmond “the Rosa Parks of Canada”? And why don’t more Americans know more about civil rights struggles in Canada? On Friday, March 1, 2019, during the three-day spring social studies leadership K–16 conference held in Chelan, Washington, put on by the Washington State Council for the Social Studies and the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Paulette Thompson’s presentation on behalf of the Canadian Studies Center, “Who’s on the $10 Bill? Unsung Civil Rights Activists Past and Present across the Border,” was exactly the place to talk about these questions! Since the theme of the conference was “building bridges,” teaching Canadian civil rights as a cross-border issue fit right in.

Fifteen people attended the session. Participants watched a short video about Nova Scotia businesswoman Viola Desmond and compared and contrasted Desmond and Parks, discussing possible reasons why labeling Desmond “Canada’s Rosa Parks” does a disservice to both women—and serves to decenter Canadian activism. Make no mistake, though: participants were excited about the fact that this African Canadian woman is on the purple ten-dollar bill.

The group identified criteria to determine who gets placed on a country’s currency, leading into a “mixer” where participants took on the personas of Rosemary Brown (Black Canadian politician in British Columbia), Sheila Watt-Cloutier (Inuit climate change activist), Sir James Douglas (the mixed-race British Columbia Governor General), Sandra Lovelace (the Maliseet woman who challenged Canada’s Indian Act), Tim Masso (Nuu-Chah-Nulth teenager revolutionizing the teaching of his people’s language), Louis Riel (Métis leader), and New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, all the while attempting to make a case for being placed on Canadian currency along with Queen Elizabeth of England.

At the end of the session, participants selected the late BC politician Rosemary Brown as the next important Canadian to be placed on the currency. Two African Canadians could be right on the money!


Paulette Thompson, a longtime public school educator, is a doctoral student in the College of Education at the University of Washington. Aside from Canada and Brazil, her interests include Indigenous and ethnic studies, Freirean philosophy, decolonization studies and global education.