Jack Knox: The ($90,000) Duffy buck stops here, Bank of Canada decides

Veteran B.C. newspaper satirist Dan Murphy drew a funny editorial cartoon the other day. It looks like a $50 bill, except it’s for $90,000 and features a picture of Mike Duffy.

We would show it to you here, but Canadian law says that could land us in prison for six months, and we don’t want to get shanked in Wilkie.

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Murphy’s cartoon, you see, caught the attention of the Bank of Canada, which on Thursday fired off a rocket of a letter demanding that the image be deleted from the website of his Edmonton-based representatives, Artizans.

You have to get permission before reproducing a bank note image, the letter said, and Murphy didn’t ask.

“Moreover,” it continued, “the bank will not approve requests where the reproduction tarnishes or diminishes the importance of currency to Canadians.”

Which brings four thoughts to mind:

A, I didn’t know I held bank notes in such high regard. I thought I just spent them.

B. Having successfully passed off Canadian Tire money in Seattle (“This is our first prime minister, Angus McDonald”) do you think I can get the Americans to bite on a $90,000 bill?

C. Whether it depicts Sir John A. hitting the bottle or Rob Ford hot-kniving hash, currency will always be important to Canadians, particularly when they don’t have any.

D. When did the Bank of Canada move its head office to Iran?

Murphy, who has been drawing political cartoons since the ’60s, was amused/dumbfounded by the letter, particularly the bit where the bank gets to muzzle those who “tarnish” our feelings toward cash.

“They’re talking censorship here,” he said, on the phone from Ladner. “It’s goofy, and at the same time it’s chilling. It’s goofy-chilling.”

Artizans sent the Bank of Canada a response saying the cartoon syndicate had temporarily pulled the image from its website because it appeared some elements may have been reproduced directly from a real $50 bill. “Please specify exactly what about this satirical bill contravenes your policy,” the reply continued. “If you’re suggesting that the artist cannot produce a satirical bill, then I think you may be on very thin ground. Satire is certainly allowed under any copyright act.”

That gets to the crux of the matter. Laws that fight counterfeiting are fine (though really, any forger gifted enough to back-engineer a single-sided cartoon of a $90,000 bill that bears the image of Mike Duffy and a hologram of Nigel Wright deserves a medal, not jail time) but the Bank of Canada has no business playing Thought Police.

Parodies of bank notes are nothing new. In 1819, British cartoonist George Cruikshank, angered after seeing a woman hanged for passing a forged note, drew a Bank of England note that featured 11 men and women dangling from nooses. During the currency panic of 1837, a series of “shin plasters” — typically five- and six-cent bills — poked fun at U.S. economic policy.

Cartoonists have been guarding their freedom of speech for just as long. In 1978, B.C. welfare minister Bill Vander Zalm sued after Victoria Times cartoonist Bob Bierman depicted him pulling the wings off flies; the Zalm lost, with the B.C. Court of Appeal ultimately upholding a cartoonist’s right to engage in satire and hyperbole. A group called Cartoonist Rights Network International recently honoured an anti-corruption cartoonist who was jailed for insulting India’s flag and parliament and a Syrian cartoonist whose hands were broken after he made fun of President Bashar Al-Assad.

“Parody and satire have cleared out their own space,” Murphy says.

Doesn’t stop The Man from throwing his weight around, though. In 2009, the Royal Canadian Mint ordered the Dogwood Initiative to stop layering one-dollar coins with black notanker.ca decals that made it look as though the loon was covered in oil.

Why? In a society where the courts defend our right to burn flags in protest, how can the law let the Bank of Canada, a state-backed institution, decide that a cartoon critical of the Senate, another state institution, diminishes the dignity of the dollar?

Wonder what they think of Murphy’s F-bomb punctuated animated version, in which a Bank of Canada governor points out the bill’s three security safeguards: The Nigel Wright hologram winks, the bank note smells like bacon and Duffy belches when you squeeze him. Search on YouTube under “$90,000 Duffy buck.”

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