Viola Desmond bank note

The new $10 bank note, featuring Viola Desmond.

On March 8, 2018, the Bank of Canada unveiled a new bank note featuring Viola Desmond—the first woman, other than royalty, to be featured on a regular circulation Canadian bank note.

This new bank note provides a wonderful opportunity to explore the concept of historical significance, one of the historical thinking concepts incorporated into many provincial and territorial curricula. (For more information about historical thinking, see The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts by Dr. Peter Seixas and Tom Morton.)

Under the lens of historical significance, we can examine the reason Viola was chosen for the note and the process used to select her. It was a process that drew from the Canadian public at large. The Bank asked Canadians to nominate women they felt deserved to appear on a bank note.

Here is an idea about how you might use this new $10 bank note to teach your class about Black or women’s history in Canada, using the concept of historical significance. This activity is suggested for secondary-level students studying Canadian history.



As a class, examine the Frontiers and Canadian Journey Series bank notes.

Ask the students if they recognize the people on these notes. Who are they? Why are they important enough to be on our money?

The selection process

Tell the students that the Bank of Canada would like to put a woman on the next bank note. Ask them to come up with a list of women who meet the following criteria:

  • She is a Canadian (by birth or naturalization) who has demonstrated outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field, benefiting the people of Canada, or in the service of Canada.
  • She has been deceased for at least 25 years.
  • She is not a fictional character.

Encourage them to pick local historical women as well. Compile a list from the submissions of the whole class.

On March 8, 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched this same exercise nationally, inviting Canadians to submit names of iconic Canadian women they felt deserved the recognition of being featured on a bank note.

The short list

The Bank of Canada convened an advisory council of prominent Canadians to choose a long list of 12 nominees from the 461 candidates that were submitted by the public. To assist the Advisory Council in creating this list, each nominee had to meet four criteria:

  • have broken or overcome barriers
  • be inspirational
  • have made a significant change, and
  • have left a lasting legacy

The Advisory Council created a short list of five nominees that would then be presented to the Minister of Finance for a final decision.

portrait of Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond, 1914–65, Entrepreneur and Defender of Social Justice.
(Photo: Communications Nova Scotia)

portrait of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)

E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), 1861–1913, Poet.
(Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

Portrait of Elizabeth (Elsie) MacGill

Elizabeth (Elsie) MacGill, 1905–80, Engineer.
(Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

portrait of Fanny (Bobbie) Rosenfeld

Fanny (Bobbie) Rosenfeld, 1904–69, Athlete.
(Photo: Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame)

portrait of Idola Saint-Jean

Idola Saint-Jean, 1880–1945, Suffragette and Activist.
(Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

Show your class the short list of the women who were nominated to appear on the $10 note and the four criteria used by the Advisory Council. Divide the class into five groups and assign each group one woman. Ask each group to research the woman online. A great place to start is the Canadian Encyclopedia. More research links are included at the end of this blog post. Tell each group that they will need to present arguments to support their nominee in a debate about which Canadian woman should appear on a bank note. Ask the students to use the same four criteria used by the Advisory Council to support their arguments.

Help the students find sources and arguments for the historical significance of each woman. Their research may take a class period to complete, or you can assign it to them as homework.

Organize a debate during the following class. Allow each group to present their candidate. Visual aids are encouraged.

Explain that historical significance varies from person to person and group to group, and that, in her own way, each of these women was the most significant and therefore deserved to be on the bank note. They all fulfilled the Advisory Council’s criteria for significance.

So, who decides who gets to be on a bank note?

The Bank of Canada consulted with historians and held focus groups to find out what Canadians thought of each of the short-listed nominees. No one nominee stood out above the others, and the short list was presented by the Governor of the Bank of Canada to the Minister of Finance for final decision. This is always the case for the “form and material” of any new bank note and stipulated in the Bank of Canada Act.

The process of choosing what goes on a bank note has changed a lot over the past 20 years. It has started to include input from the Canadian public, and this note was the first to have an open call for nominations for the portrait subject.

Ask the students:

  • What do you think of the criteria chosen by the Bank of Canada and the Advisory Council for the historical significance of the nominees?

Show a picture of the new $10 bill featuring Viola Desmond. Explain that she is the first woman (besides royalty) to be featured on a regular circulation Bank of Canada bank note. You can also show a video that highlight the features of the new note.

Ask the students:

  • What do you think of the choice that was made and the selection process? What would you have done differently?

You might want to follow this up with a larger class project. Using themes related to what you have been studying in class, you could ask students to choose, research and present another notable Canadian who could appear on a future bank note.

Research sources

The Public Consultation

“Selection Process,” The Bank of Canada

Viola Desmond

“A Bank NOTE-able Canadian Woman,” The Bank of Canada

“Viola Desmond,” The Canadian Encyclopedia

“Viola Desmond,” Black History Canada by Historica Canada

E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)

“Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake),” The Canadian Encyclopedia

“Emily Pauline Johnson,” Poetry Foundation

“Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake),” Library and Archives Canada

Elizabeth “Elsie” MacGill

“Elsie MacGill,”’ The Canadian Encyclopedia

“ARCHIVED – Elizabeth Muriel Gregory MacGill,” Library and Archives Canada

Fanny (Bobbie) Rosenfeld

“Fanny Rosenfeld,” The Canadian Encyclopedia

“ARCHIVED Fanny ‘Bobbie’ Rosenfeld,” Library and Archives Canada

“Fanny ‘Bobbie’ Rosenfeld,” by Danny Rosenberg, Jewish Women’s Archive [available in English only]

“Fanny ‘Bobbie’ Rosenfeld: An icon for all ages,” by Malcolm Kelly, CBC Sports

Idola Saint-Jean

“Idola Saint-Jean,” The Canadian Encyclopedia

“Fonds Idola Saint-Jean,” Archives Montréal [available in French only]

“This Week in History: A Fighter,” Parks Canada Archives