This spring, the Bank of Canada and the Trudeau government announced that the face of a woman other than the queen will be appear for the first time on a Bank of Canada bank note. Apparently a new series of bank notes is being released in 2018, and one of that series will feature the face of a woman.
The Bank launched a public consultation process to select “an iconic Canadian woman.” From March 8th to April 15th, over 26,000 names were suggested. On April 4th, an Advisory Council of seven diverse Canadians was appointed. The Council includes two historians, a sociologist, a university president, a youth activist, a young writer, and a champion 100-metre hurdler who has “earned more international medals and titles than any other female track and field athlete in Canadian history.” It’s a very impressive group whose biographical information you can read on the internet. Two experts were also appointed to advise on consultation strategies.
The first consultation generated 461 names of women who met the qualifying criteria: Canadian by birth or naturalization, “outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction” in any field benefitting the people of Canada, and deceased for at least 25 years. These names went to the Advisory Council to develop a “long list.”
See “A Bank NOTE-able Canadian woman” and find out how many names you recognize on this first list. I am chagrined to report that, despite my multiple university degrees, lengthy professional career, and lifelong feminism, I only recognized 33 of the names. And of even these, only most vaguely. Test yourself. How many names do you know from the list? Can you say anything specific about even those you recognize? If you are anything like me, our collective knowledge about the contributions of women over Canada’s history is abysmal.
The Advisory Council identified a “long list” of twelve nominees for the potential “NOTE-able woman.” They applied four criteria: the woman should have broken or overcome barriers, be inspirational, have made a significant change, and left a lasting legacy. They also considered three operating principles: the woman should “resonate with Canadians, reflect the diversity of Canada, and her achievements must be seen in the context of the time they lived.”
So who actually made the long list? The women chosen were: Pitseolak Ashoona, Thérèse Casgrain, Emily Carr, Viola Desmond, Lotta Hitschmanova, Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), Elsie MacGill, Nellie McClung, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Fanny (Bobbie) Rosenfeld, Gabrielle Roy, and Idola Saint-Jean. Check out their basic biographical details on the above website. Be warned: the details are basic.
According to an Angus Reid survey in early May, 27% of 1,517 Canadian members on an online forum favoured Nellie McClung as their number one choice. Thérèse Casgrain, Elsie MacGill, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Emily Carr and Viola Desmond were in the top six.
I knew little of the above when I read by chance this summer Nellie McClung’s The Stream Runs Fast: My Own Story (1945 reissued in 2007 by Thomas Allen). McClung is a wonderful writer whose life as an author, prairie reformer, suffragette, legislator, and representative of Canada on the international scene, is much more significant than her participation in the Persons Case. If her life is typical, all the top nominees from this very elaborate “recognition of women” process warrant a place on a bank note.
Reading her autobiography makes it clear to me that choosing one Bank NOTE-able Canadian Woman is the worst kind of tokenism. The bank notes in question are projected for 2018. Why are not all the top nominees included on the next set of bank notes? As this very elaborate process has indicated, there is no shortage of qualified women. Do we not have five bank notes? Of course we do. We have a $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, and even higher bills.
If Canadian women deserve recognition on one bank note, they deserve recognition on a whole series of bank notes. What other subject in the new series could be more important than recognizing the forgotten contributions of diverse women in Canadian history? The Bank of Canada Museum website describes all our Canadian bank note series. There is a bank note series on “Canadian landscapes,” “Canadian scenes,” “Canadian birds,” “Canadian journeys,” a “Commemorative” series on firsts, and a “Bilingual” series. Given this track record, why not an entire series on “iconic Canadian women?” If the Advisory Council is to achieve its operating principles, there can be no other choice. It is, after all, 2016.