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More on the campaign to honour women on banknotes

“Women hold up half the sky, and many believe that in an equalitarian country they should hold up half the banknotes.”— Merna Forster

“Women hold up half the sky, and many believe that in an equalitarian country they should hold up half the banknotes.”— Merna Forster

Quick now, tell me the names of the Famous Five. No, not the Fabulous Four, the names of the five famous Canadian women’s rights activists whose images (albeit individually unrecognizable) graced the back of the Canadian 50-dollar bill, 2004-2012.

Anyone? Hello?

Okay, don’t feel too badly, I only ever remember two of them myself.

The Bank of Canada replaced them and the head shot of Quebec feminist activist Therese Casgrain with an icebreaker. Hence Victoria historian and author Merna Forster’s online petition (over two and a half years has collected 73,000 signatures) to reinstate “women [not necessarily the Famous Five or Casgrain] from Canadian history on our banknotes”. Her crusade is timely as the BOC is in the final selection stage of redesigning some of our currency.

In her letter to BOC Governor Stephen Poloz in February 2015, Ms. Forster noted that there is “widespread interest in the Canadian Women on Bank Notes campaign across Canada, and there has been extensive media coverage as a result.”

She also takes issue to which side of the banknote is used: “Should Canadian women be honoured in the most prestigious places on the front of our bills, or on the back with secondary importance?

“...While it was an important step forward to celebrate Canadian women on the back of a bill [she’s referring to the 2004-2012 $50 bank note], I believe that in an egalitarian nation like ours the Bank of Canada should move forward and depict female Canadian historical figures on the front of our bills [a la Prime Minister W.C. Mackenzie King, etc.]. Equality is important, especially in a country where we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms which, under Clause 15, guarantees freedom from discrimination based on gender.

“A federal program, such as banknotes, which celebrates four white men (and no female Canadians) on the front of its bills certainly appears to demonstrate sexism as well as racism. While I applaud the Bank of Canada for launching some public consultations to solicit input on banknote design, petitioners strongly believe that the inclusion of Canadian women on our bills should be a design principle — not an optional outcome determined by surveys or other forms of consultations...”

After noting that her petitioners “are extremely upset about the … lack of diversity of people honoured on our notes,” and pointing out that at least six other countries have honoured women heroines on their currency, she declared: “Please feature at least one woman from Canadian history on the front of these banknotes which supposedly belong to all Canadians — and preferably more than one. Women hold up half the sky, and many believe that in an equalitarian country they should hold up half the banknotes.”

“Some people say to me,” she concluded, “oh, this is not a significant issue; well, it’s a symbolic issue, it’s important and something needs to be done about it.” And: “Who and what is celebrated on our banknotes matters, as it reflects what we consider important in our culture and history and who we consider worthy of honouring for achievement.”

I’ve told you the remarkable story of Elsie MacGill, Canada’s first aeronautical engineer, whose name has been put forward for consideration. But I have a candidate of my own, even though she earned her undying fame in the United States. A pharmacist born in Cobble Hill, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, wrote her name in medical history when she worked for the American Food and Drug Administration.

She risked her reputation and career by taking a courageous stand against a new morning sickness drug, thalidomide, after it was linked to thousands of appalling birth defects in newborns. Thanks to Dr. Kelsey thalidomide was not just banned in the U.S. but taken off the market altogether — and countless children were born whole and healthy as a result.

Which brings us to the very definition of greatness. Many of us are remarkable, even extraordinary. But true greatness (particularly in this fickle age of shallow celebrities) goes much farther. It can also be subjective: one person’s idea of greatness is not necessarily shared by others. Who is right? And, particularly in the case of the forthcoming new bank notes, who decides? The Bank of Canada has the final say, of course. But if Merna Forster and tens of thousands of other Canadians are heard, and heeded, heads may roll — more accurately, female heads other than that of the Queen may appear on our currency.

I never did think all that much of King anyway. I mean, so what if he led Canada through the Second World War. What kind of prime minister talks to his dead mother through his dog, you know what I mean?