Why Only One Bank NOTE-able Canadian Woman?

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.

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  1. Marylyn Peringer

    Dear Marion,

    So good to read your latest Bubble. I looked at the whole list and got just over 40 names (but then I’m older than you). Some of the names I knew struck me as interesting. For example, three women whose names I recognized–Marie-Josephte Corriveau, Helen Betty Osborne and Dorothy Stratten–were all innocent females killed unjustly by men. Did you recognize them? If I need correcting regarding any of the information below, please let me know.

    La Corriveau, as she is known in legend, lived in St-Vallier, near Levis, P.Q. was hanged by the British in 1763 for murdering her second husband. Later research has indicated that she was probably a battered wife. Her first husband had died in circumstances which her neighbours found suspicious ( the death subsequently proven to be of natural causes). The events surrounding her eventual arrest, trial and execution have been novelized and dramatized. She’s probably the only one of the 461 to be immortalized in legend as a spirit returning from the dead ( Aubert de Gaspe, Philippe Joseph, Les Anciens Canadiens).

    Helen Betty Osborne lived in The Pas, was a First Nations teenager kidnapped and murdered by young locals. Her death was not properly investigated for many years. As I recall, her killers escaped justice.

    Dorothy Stratten rose to dubious fame as a Playboy centrefold and was murdered by her jealous psychotic lover. Her story was made into a Hollywood film some years ago.

    Tragic as these deaths may be, I can’t see why any of these women should appear on a Canadian banknote. So I’m wondering if there are other women on the list who are there for the same reason (would Kateri Tekawitha qualify?), or have been submitted for other political purposes?


    • Marion Lane

      Thank you for sharing this information Marylyn. I have similar concerns. The description of Nellie McClung’s book, “written in the style of the Methodist and temperance literature of her day,” seems disparaging and condescending to me. I found her writing absolutely delightful and totally accessible to modern readers. The author of the official blurb about her doesn’t seem to appreciate that her involvement in “the Person’s Case” was not the focus of her very long and notable career. She was important initially because she was the leader of a group of women who shamed the Manitoba government into giving the vote to women in l917, the first of any jurisdiction in Canada to do so.

  2. Michiel Horn

    I’m with you, Marion. My first choice is Emily Carr. Second place? Lucy Maud Montgomery. The arts get too little respect in this country. Then a tie between McClung and Casgrain. Flip a coin to decide.

  3. Bob I.

    Isn’t the obvious point that, if you, an otherwise educated Canadian of a certain age with countless degrees don’t recognize many of the names on that list, they likely aren’t “Iconic” Canadian woman. But, I wouldn’t chalk that up to ignorance of woman’s contribution to Canadian history. I suspect if you had a list of the 400 male equivalents (in terms of significance, contribution, role, etc) you’d recognize less than 40 of them.

    And I note, it is not accurate to say, as you and that slobbering idiot Trudeau do, that Canadian woman have not been represented on Canadian bank notes before. The “famous five” and Therese Casgrain were pictured on the $50 bill in the “Canadian Journeys” series which you haughtily dismiss – e.g, a good chunk of the allegedly unrepresented “iconic” woman (though, in their case, the claim to be iconic is at least plausible). That same series features genuinely iconic poetry from Gabrielle Roy on the $20, and Mariam Waddington on the $100.

    As an aside, isn’t that the best way to do this? Rather than include people simply because of their gender, have notes which recognize iconic Canadian works or accomplishments drawn, inevitably, from the experiences of accomplished Canadians of all background. What is a better way to honor, for example, Gabrielle Roy, to put her picture on a bill or her poetry? I’m mean if having a single bill with a woman on it is the worst form of tokenism, I’m not sure why adopting 5 – presumably a lesser form of tokenism – is the answer.

    It’s a testament to the political tokenism of the whole exercise and the stupidity of certain segments of our political class that the entire premise of this exercise – that woman have not heretofore been represented on our currency – is false. Perhaps rather than reinventing the wheel for cynical political purposes, we’d be further ahead to continue the practice started with the Canadian journeys series.

  4. judith

    Dear Marion,
    This is very interesting. I recognised 62. I was struck by the number of politican’s wives. Some, like Pauline Vanier, are well known for their own achievements but not all. I also wondered why they included Elzire Dionne, but not the quints, who were surely the most iconic Canadian females for a few years.
    As to Marylyn’s point, Pat Lowther was a B.C. poet who was murdered by her husband and Anna Mae Aquash was killed in an American poitical crisis, at Pine Ridge.


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