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RECURRENT VOICES: Veronica (Nikki) Strong-Boag

RECURRENT VOICES: Veronica (Nikki) Strong-Boag

May 25, 2016

Every One A ‘Woman Worthy’ [1]: Commemoration on Canadian Currency

Because it’s 2018, or soon will be—in other words, a hundred years after Ottawa deigned to enfranchise most but not all Canadian women in the ‘Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women’[2]– we are finally going to see a Canadian woman (not a British queen or princess) on a banknote. Don’t be surprised if the official launch occurs on that particular suffrage anniversary. The designation of women, or at least one, to offset monetary commemorations of male prime ministers Macdonald, Laurier, Borden, and King has been the subject of a long and now successful campaign led by BC historian, educator, and naturalist Merna Forster (http://www.heroines.ca/about/author.html ). An indefatigable veteran and keen observer of the Department of Canadian Heritage and Parks Canada, Forster understands the significance of public commemoration. Without an inclusive practice, a nation risks losing crucial elements of itself, without which neither past, nor present, nor future can truly make sense.[3]

The long-standing and deliberate omission of women from Canadian currency, but for a titular head of state to whom no more than symbolic obeisance need be given, is significant. So too were a Conservative regime’s removal of both the ‘Famous Five’ and Thérèse Casgrain from the $50 bill (2011) and the ‘whitening’ of an anonymous female scientist to make her appear less Asian on the $100 (2012). The October 2015 ascent of a Liberal government in Ottawa promised to challenge at least part of the national portrait brandished by Conservative ideologues. Remember who now graces our passports: “white guys” who are “rural, warlike and sporty, but not literate.”[4] Just as in the United Kingdom and the United States, Canada is about to be presented with a single image of womanhood intended to get to the heart of the nation. For the UK, the choice of the iconic figure of Jane Austen clearly represents Culture (it’s hard not to think of ‘cool’ Britannia), definitely with a cap; for the US the choice of Harriet Tubman implicates Freedom (albeit not ‘freedom fighters’), again with a cap.

Since the New Year, the competition for the honour has become fierce. Canadians were first asked to nominate suitable female candidates and then to watch the outcome. Names in their hundreds came in. A distinguished advisory council to the Minister of Finance (which includes Forster as well as scholars and notable Canadians from Indigenous and visible minority communities) next assembled a long list of suitable nominees (see http://www.bankofcanada.ca/banknotes/banknoteable/ ). Although there were some astonishing omissions —and many of us will mourn the absence of special favourites: mine are Nahnebahwequay, known as Catherine Sutton (1824-1865) and Agnes Campbell Macphail (1890-1954)” the twelve finalists are all worthy Canadians. No woman is perfect but then no man has achieved that godlike state either.

Two on the long list are Indigenous (Pitseolak Ashoona and E. Pauline Johnson), one is Black (Viola Desmond), and the rest are white. All but two (Fanny Rosenfeld and Lotta Hitchmanova) are Canadian-born. Three of them have significant association with British Columbia (Johnson, Emily Carr, Nellie L. McClung). There is considerable cross-over but the majority count either as producers of culture (Pitseolak, Johnson, Carr, McClung, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Gabrielle Roy) or political activists (Johnson, Desmond, McClung, Thérèse Casgrain, Idola Saint-Jean) with outliers described as humanitarian (Hitchmanova), athlete (Fanny or Bobbie Rosenfeld), and engineer (Elizabeth or Elsie Macgill). The balance suggests a preference for either a representative of culture (think Austen) or political liberation (think Tubman).

If I were a betting woman, I know whom I’d choose. But in some ways it doesn’t matter. Every single woman on the long list deserves closer attention from scholars and from the public in general. We have been reaping rewards since Merna Forster started her campaign. Debates about the best choice have deepened awareness of the sheer number and diversity of Canadian women who merit commemoration.[5] When we remember the full range of ways that it is possible to honour those women (and men) who have given special service to the greater community” we could begin by renaming all those streets and avenues soullessly labeled with numbers in Vancouver and elsewhere–, we have an extraordinary opportunity to enrich life for ourselves and subsequent generations. Why wait for 2018? History has already waited long enough.

[1] This is an older term but one that still applies to this group. See the classic article, Gerda Lerner, “Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges,” Feminist Studies 3:1/2 (Autumn 1975): 5-14.

[2] Introduced in March 21, 1918, it received royal asset May 24, 1918. The forthcoming seven-volume series, “Women Suffrage and Human Rights in Canada,” from UBC Press highlights the groups who were excluded as well as those who first won enfranchisement.

[3] See Veronica Strong-Boag, “Experts on Our Own Lives: Commemorating Canada at the Beginning of the 21st Century,”The Public Historian 31:1 (2009) 31 46-68.

[4] Heather Mallick, “The New Canadian Passport is Pure Harperlandia,” Toronto Star (9 September 2013). See also the federal government’s 2011 “Discover Canada” guide to the citizenship test and 2012 guide for immigrants, “Welcome to Canada,” with their highlighting of the monarchy and the military, both of which foster a deliberately reductionist patriotism. See also Veronica Strong-Boag, “Rejecting Evidence for Justice: The Anti-Women Politics of Canadian Conservatism,” forthcoming in the Journal of Law and Equality.

[5] See, for example, Crawford Kilian, “What BC Women Should Be on Canadian Banknotes? Try these nominees, who made our country a better place on their own terms.” The Tyee, 15 Mar 2016,http://thetyee.ca/Culture/2016/03/15/BC-Women-Canadian-Banknotes/ ; Kaleigh Bradley, “The Currency of Memory: #bankNOTEable Canadian Women,” Activehistory 19 April 2016 http://activehistory.ca/2016/04/the-currency-of-memory-banknoteable-canadian-women/; Vasiliki Bednar, “Putting an accomplished Canadian woman on a bank note is great, but let’s not stop there,” Policy Options, 4 May 2016, http://policyoptions.irpp.org/2016/05/04/there-are-more-places-to-celebrate-banknoteable-women/