A portrait of a Canadian woman will appear on Canada’s bank notes for first time in 2018. And no one is happier than the Oak Bay advocate for gender equality who has championed the issue for the last five years.
Historian Merna Forster said that the announcement Tuesday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left her “shaking because I can hardly believe that this has finally happened after all these years.”
She’s proud of persevering, but she’s also waiting to learn the answer to a critical question: Will the chosen portrait appear on the front of the bill or the reverse, something she said smacks of “second class” status.
“Women hold up half the sky,” Forster said. “Why shouldn’t they hold up half the bank notes?”
Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau marked International Women’s Day by launching the search for a new female face for Canada’s currency.
“I am pleased to announce today, right here, that a Canadian woman will be featured on the very first of the next series of bills expected in 2018,” Trudeau told an Ottawa news conference.
Forster first made her case in the Times Colonist on Dec. 10, 2011, decrying the decision by the Bank of Canada to chop tiny depictions of the Famous Five women on the $50 bill who defined females as legal persons. They were replaced with the image of an icebreaker after a mere seven years.
If gender doesn’t matter on money, Forster argued, why not have only female faces on bank notes, she wrote. She got nowhere with the Harper Conservatives but contacted prominent Liberals as soon as they were elected last fall.
In July 2013, Forster started an online campaign at change.org/canadianheroines calling for female faces on bills. By Tuesday, there were more than 73,000 signatures.
“I almost felt like giving up so many times,” Forster said, crediting the change.org hosts’ encouragement for keeping her going. To their knowledge, Forster’s campaign is the longest-running petition hosted by change.org to have resulted in victory.
Her campaign included writing letters to every MP in Ottawa and all MPs in the last session of Parliament, “countless letters to the Bank of Canada, cabinet ministers, influential men and women across Canada, members of the board of directors of the Bank of Canada” and motivating teachers to get students involved.
The Queen first appeared on the $20 Canadian bill in 1935 as a young princess, a denomination she continues to define.
Hazel McCallion, the firebrand mayor of Mississauga, Ont., for 36 years, was on hand for the announcement that women would appear on bills — although they will have to be deceased for at least 25 years. “Finally, the Bank of Canada and the government has recognized it is time for a woman,” McCallion said.
MP Sheila Malcolmson, the NDP critic for the status of women, has also pushed to have women on currency.
“New Democrats have been fighting to diversify our bank notes and make them reflective of Canadians for years,” she said.
Forster points out that the website womenonbanknotes.ca has scores of nominees and allows nominators to see how their choice would look on the front of the $100 bill.
Unwilling to commit herself to personal first choices, Forster noted nominations of B.C. women such as Victoria artist Emily Carr and aeronautical engineer Elizabeth MacGill who designed the Hawker Hurricane Second World War plane.
It would be fitting if one of the first portraits were a First Nations woman, which would also strike a blow for diversity, she said. In her Times Colonist article, she cited Mohawk diplomat Molly Brant and Inuit guide Tookoolito as contenders.
Canada is playing catch-up with Sweden, which has opted for equal numbers of male and female faces on bank notes and Australia, which features an Australian woman on four out of five bills, with an Australian man on the other side.
The Bank of Canada is seeking nominees at its website until April 15. An independent advisory council of academic and cultural leaders will review submissions and, after talking to experts and more consultation with the public, will provide a short list of candidates to the finance minister.
The bank note announcement came as the Royal Canadian Mint unveiled a new $1 coin commemorating the 100 years since women first gained the right to vote in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta provincial elections.
The mint plans to issue five million of the new coins, designed by artist Laurie McGaw. The reverse features a 1916-era depiction of a woman casting a ballot as her child looks on. It’s inscribed: “Women’s right to vote, Droit de vote des femmes, 1916-2016.
— With files from The Canadian Press
> The Bank of Canada is accepting nominations on its website: bankofcanada.ca/banknoteable