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Author, activist Nellie McClung: is she banknote worthy?

“Refugees have enriched many countries. They would enrich us.”— Nellie McClung.

“Refugees have enriched many countries. They would enrich us.”— Nellie McClung.


Bravo, Merna Foster! The Victoria author and historian’s online crusade to have great Canadian women honoured on Canadian banknotes has finally paid off after she collected 73,000 signatures over three years.

Last week, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that a Canadian woman as yet unannounced (perhaps as yet unselected) “will be featured on the first of the new series of bills expected in 2018”.

The battle isn’t over, however. There have been many great Canadian women in our history and we have just seven banknotes to work with. To date, they’ve carried the images of Queen Elizabeth, former prime ministers (all of them male, of course), and various stereotypical Canadian scenes such as a fishboat, an icebreaker, and the like.

For a time, 2004-2012, the $50 bill bore the profiles of the Famous Five — Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney and Nellie McClung — and the head-and-shoulders portrait of Quebec female rights activist Therese Casgrain who was the only one that was recognizable.

Ms. Forster also thinks that it’s important that women be recognized on the front, not the back, of bills.

As for possible women candidates for our currency, scores of names have been submitted via, Foster’s website. Among them, as I told you several weeks ago, is Canada’s first aircraft designer Elsie MacGill and, my own hope, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, born in Cobble Hill.

Three other names with strong B.C. connections are the province’s foremost artist, Emily Carr, First Nations poet E. Pauline Johnson and (also Ontario-born) author and activist Nellie McClung. I’ve admired Nellie’s voluminous writings since reading Clearing In the West, one of 16 books that she wrote. And, many years ago on CBC, I heard a reading of her description of a single woman applying for a bank loan in the 1940s; it’s funny, it’s priceless and things probably haven’t changed much all these years later.

Her name is being championed by the leader of the Manitoba Conservative Party, Brian Pallister, who has written to the governor of the Bank of Canada, 100 years after Manitoba became the first Canadian province (on Jan. 28, 1916) to grant women the right to vote. (Not until April 5, 1917 did B.C. pass similar legislation.) Pallister is quoted as saying that McClung should be on Canadian currency in recognition of her role in the enfranchisement of women, as a female pioneer and as a “democratic icon” whose image would remind Canadians that everyone has a place in democracy.

The Times-Colonist concurs, rating McClung “an ideal candidate to be the first woman other than the Queen to be on a Canadian banknote...”

I probably should explain here that McClung was one of the Famous Five, named previously, who won a landmark court ruling that finally and legally recognized women as “persons.” The fact that she spent the latter years of her life living in Saanich gives us a proprietary interest in her nomination.

For some time now the T-C has been republishing a series of columns McClung wrote for the Victoria Daily Times in 1939 and into the 1940s. They’re insightful, articulate and her humanism shows through, as in her recent column, originally published in March 1939, on Canada’s attitude towards emigrants and refugees. At a time when Germany’s anti-Semitic policies were becoming world-known and the Canadian government had turned back a shipload of Jewish refugees to imprisonment and ultimate murder, McClung presented a case for acceptance of refugees. She did so not just on humanistic grounds, but because Canada, which had been largely settled and forged by immigrants from Europe and elsewhere, would gain valuable citizens: “Refugees have enriched many countries. They would enrich us.”

But there was more to this than just the tangible, she wrote: “Whether they enrich us or not materially, one thing is certain: If we refuse them, we will be impoverished in our hearts.”

But, alas, Nellie McClung’s sympathy had its limits and this character trait could well disqualify her from consideration for individual status on a Canadian banknote. We do, after all, live in a politically correct age and Nellie’s belief in eugenics, a doctrine that has become infamous for its promotion, among other things, of the sterilization of those deemed to be “mental defectives,” has earned for her deserved criticism and censure.

In short, Nellie McClung was less than perfect. And we can’t have that now, can we?