Comment: Women conspicuous by absence on banknotes

When the Bank of Canada launches its new $5 and $10 bills today, there will be no surprises — we’ve seen the designs and noted who are conspicuous by their absence.

To the 23,000 people who have already signed my petition calling for the inclusion of women from Canadian history on bank notes, those shiny polymers are a disappointing reminder of what’s missing from the latest series: Any of the many incredible women who helped build this country.

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Eliminating women completely (some were featured on the previous $50) is a step backward that has left many Canadians scratching their heads.

“Half the population are women and yet no women are represented on our bank notes?” queried Pamela Fitch of Ottawa. Or perhaps Chief Mathieya Alatini of Kluane First Nation said it best: “Featuring women who have achieved great things for Canada should be common sense (cents)!”

Chances are the men, women and youth who have supported the campaign to date won’t be any happier with the bank’s official reaction to the petition, which I received this week: a firm “we’ll see.”

At the urging of U.K. feminist Caroline Criado-Perez, I started this petition on Change.org in July. I was inspired by her successful Change.org petition that resulted in Bank of England governor Mark Carney unveiling a new bank note to honour Jane Austen. That £10 bill will be issued in 2017.

And yes, that’s the same Mark Carney who, as governor of the Bank of Canada, replaced the only identifiable Canadian women on bank notes with an icebreaker in the new polymer series. After moving across the pond, he quickly gave in to public pressure and announced during the summer that the Bank of England would again feature a famous British woman (in addition to the Queen).

After tens of thousands of Canadians signed the petition here, I shipped off the signatures and comments to Carney’s successor, Stephen Poloz. He responded to the petition, indicating in a lengthy letter to me that he thinks it is premature to commit to including both Canadian women and men on each new series of bank notes. Poloz explained that he wants to wait for public consultations on the issue, slated to begin in 2014.

But an eager public has already begun consulting, and what they’re saying is that at least one Canadian woman is not too much to ask. My petition does not demand changes to our current series, but rather a promise for our future series. Its signers and I are not advocating for any particular woman — just the idea that national symbols as ubiquitous as our bank notes should include at least one Canadian woman, if diversity and equality mean anything to us.

And political support? I mailed letters to the prime minister and every member of Parliament. Federal politicians have begun contacting me, with MP Bruce Hyer the first to sign and offer assistance. MP Peggy Nash supports the petition, and questioned Poloz about the lack of Canadian women during a meeting of the House of Commons finance committee last week. Wouldn’t it be great if all members could take a five-minute break from the Senate scandal to unite in showing their support for the inclusion of Canadian women on currency that is supposed to belong to and celebrate all Canadians?

Given the bank’s reluctance to commit to including Canadian women on bank notes without more public support, we need more people to sign the petition and call for a more inclusive selection approach that will include both genders, as well as greater diversity. As the bank begins looking toward the next series, it’s time to roar.

A supporter of the petition, Grant Hayter-Menzies, recently wrote: “I can scarcely believe this is even an issue requiring thought or discussion!” Apparently it is, so let’s get to it.

Merna Forster is a Victoria-based historian. She is the author of 100 Canadian Heroines and 100 More Canadian Heroines, as well as the creator of the heroines.ca website. Her petition can be found at change.org/CanadianHeroines.

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