On International Women’s Day earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Bank of Canada’s plans to feature a woman on the country’s new set of federal bank notes to be issued in 2018. “In our country’s nearly 150-year history, women — with the notable exception of the Queen — have largely been unrepresented on our bank notes,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau said at the time of the announcement. Since then, the federal government has actively been soliciting pitches from the public on who they would nominate to feature on this new bill. The requirements: that the woman be a Canadian “who has demonstrated outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field,” that she’s been deceased for at least 25 years, and that she’s not a fictional character.
The consultation period for nominations ends today. To mark it, TVO.org asked four writers to consider a woman they would nominate for the new bank note. The only criteria: that she be Ontario-based, whether by birth or by choice and that the nominee reflects the types of individuals often left out of public discussions about national figureheads. What does it mean to choose a person to represent a country’s values? Whose values are often left out?
By Kiva Reardon
I’m inclined to approach this government’s call to put a woman on Canadian currency with cautious optimism. Given the erasure of women from most of our history — and especially women of colour — this level of visibility is a powerful statement. But, I wonder whether this move is more about optics than an indication of institutional change.
Adding a woman to our currency is a poignant gesture, but overtures don’t save lives. I’m more interested in bills being passed in Parliament than what the bills in my pocket looks like. Say, for instance, actively addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered Aboriginal women rather than stalling with more reviews, commissioned reports and parliamentary pontification.
There’s also the fact that a more powerful, if controversial, statement would be to remove the woman already on our currency, a figurehead who represents a legacy of violent colonialism, entrenched nepotism and anti-democratic rule: the Queen.
But I’ll leave the lid on that can of worms and attempt to make the strongest case for an Ontario woman who I believe should be immortalized on our money. Poet Emily Pauline Johnson strikes a balance between a healthy nationalism while also acknowledging difference and diversity in her work.
Born outside of Brantford, Ont., on the Six Nations Reserve in 1861, Johnson’s father was Mohawk and her mother of Dutch descent. Her interracial background meant she was not fully recognized by either the British Crown (too “Indian”) and sometimes by First Nations communities as well. This liminal experience of navigating personal identity isn’t uniquely Canadian, but it is a condition of what we as a nation at least claim to support: multiculturalism. Further, in Canada we claim to love the arts as much as we love our landscapes. In recent years, both have come under attack with government cuts to artistic funding and a reluctance to address the blight of the tar sands. Putting Johnson on our money demonstrates a return to, and the continued protection of, these important values.
Johnson’s poems weren’t always radical, and are very much a product of their time. In “Canadian Born,” for example, she writes: For not a man dare lift a hand against the men who brag / That they were born in Canada beneath the British flag.
Importantly, though, she did embrace her First Nations identity with a fierce pride. From “As Red Men Die”: Captive! But never conquered; Mohawk brave / Stoops not to be to any man a slave.
Above all, the way she describes our landscapes and nature resonates. Take her most celebrated poem, “The Song My Paddle Sings”:
And up on the hills against the sky,
A fir tree rocking its lullaby,
Its emerald wings,
Swelling the song that my paddle sings.
This is a legacy and poetic vision of Canada is one I would be happy to carry in my pocket.
Kiva Reardon is a writer, programmer and the founding editor of cléo.
By now many people have likely heard that a Canadian woman will appear on the next set of federal bank notes, a move that will add some much-needed diversity and representation to our money. The Canadian government has even sought public input on who this woman will be through a nomination process.
While this may seem like a small thing to some, the faces placed on our bank notes say a lot about who we are and what we value as a country. It is on bank notes that we place our heroes, thinkers, innovators and inventors — the co-creators of Canada. Until now, our money has reflected these values: with the exception Queen Elizabeth, white men have had an uninterrupted 81-year reign over Canada’s bank notes since they were first issued in 1935.
If I were to nominate an Ontario-based woman to appear on the new note, it would be Afua Cooper. As a woman who has worked tirelessly to uncover lost and hidden black history in this country, she has helped shape Canadian society.
Cooper, a Jamaica-born poet, historian, author, educator and activist, is a woman who wears many hats and wears them well. Her novel, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction and instrumental in disproving the popular fallacy that enslavement did not take place on Canadian soil.
In early 1990, she was involved in the successful protest and closure of the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Into the Heart of Africa” exhibit, which Cooper said showed “Africa as childlike, primitive, savage and in need of European tutelage.”
Working alongside the Black Action Defense Committee, the Black Inmates and Friends Assembly and other community organizers, in 1995 at the University of Toronto she helped create a declaration denouncing racial profiling and police brutality. In 2007, when the Canadian government opted out of marking the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of slavery, she held former prime minister Stephen Harper accountable for this essential denial of Canada’s role in African enslavement.
As the current James Robinson Johnston chair in black Canadian studies at Dalhousie University, Cooper is working on and advocating for a national and international plan for post-secondary black studies in Canada to ensure that knowledge unearthed and developed in academia trickles down to the general public.
But for all of Cooper’s achievements, she shouldn’t be on the new bank note. This is not because Cooper doesn’t deserve to be. It’s Canada that doesn’t deserve her — or any other black person, for that matter — on its money. Putting Cooper on a Canadian bank note would perpetuate the myth that Canada is closer to racial equity than we actually are, re-affirm the meritocratic myth that lies at the foundation of our national story, and fail to address the many systemic issues that affect the quality of black people’s lives in Canada today.
We live in a time when our cabinet, one of the highest seats of power in the country, is devoid of black women ministers and when 26 per cent of black people are food-insecure, compared to 12 per cent of all Canadian households. It is a time when black people are the fastest-growing federal prison population (the black inmate population grew by 69 per cent between 2005 and 2015) and when black and other racialized women make 53 cents to every dollar white men make, (white women make 73 cents).
Because it’s 2016, what black people in Canada need is institutional change, not tokenism in the form of a picture on money.
Septembre Anderson is a Toronto-based multimedia journalist, cultural critic and public intellectual.
Harriet Brooks was Canada’s first female nuclear physicist — and a woman largely lost to history. Born in Exeter in 1876, she later enrolled in McGill University’s fledgling physics program in Montreal, a few years after the school had started admitting women. Brooks excelled at the school, and went on to work with three Nobel laureates: Ernest Rutherford, J.J. Thomson and Marie Curie, perhaps the only woman scientist of the early 20th Century we do collectively remember.
In 1904, Brooks joined the faculty of New York’s Barnard College, an all-women school associated with Columbia, and a few years later fell in love. The dean demanded Brooks’ immediate resignation, dated on her wedding day, arguing it was impossible for a woman to have both a husband and a career. In rebuttal, Brooks called off her engagement. “I think also it is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has a right to the practice of her profession,” she wrote in response to the dean. “and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries.”
During that time, Rutherford boasted: “Next to Mme. Curie, [Brooks] was the most pre-eminent woman physicist in the department of radioactivity.” Yet, while she was among the early discoverers of radon and was the first to realize the one element can change into another (i.e., radium to radon), historians all but scrubbed her co-authorship from papers and footnotes of others citing her work. Brooks was only rediscovered when researchers spotted a lone female face in a moustache-speckled photograph of McGill’s physics department. Since then, she’s enjoyed a posthumous burst of fame: McGill has honoured her; she was inducted into the Canadian Science and Technology Hall of Fame; and, curiously, in Japan, she’s become an icon — an Anne of Green Gables for the science set. But it’s nowhere near enough.
In 1993, Margaret Rossiter coined the term “Matilda Effect” to describe the historical erasure of women from science. “Recent work,” she wrote, “has brought to light so many cases, historical and contemporary, of women scientists who have been ignored, denied credit or otherwise dropped from sight that a sex-linked phenomenon seems to exist.”
Of course it does — and it hasn’t gone away. It’s important to honour trailblazers, yes, but we also need to acknowledge that Brooks’ experience bares a chilling resemblance to the many hurdles women face today in science, technology, engineering and math, from slanted hiring practices and sexist workplace culture to poor diversity and problems within STEM education itself.
Consider this: in 2015, only 13 per cent of Twitter’s tech staff were women. At Facebook, it’s 16 per cent; at Google, 18. Even Pinterest, whose whole business model is pointedly women-oriented, has a tech staff of only 21 per cent women. And let’s not forget Gamergate, the vitriolic and violent campaign against women in video games that forced several female developers to flee their homes under threats of rape and death.
Putting Brooks on a bank note gives her, and other women in STEM, the capital-H history recognition they deserve. It’s a haunting reminder, each time we dip into our wallets, of how easy it is to professionally diminish women. But let’s not also mistake the symbolic gesture for a problem solved — there’s still way too much work to be done.
Lauren McKeon is a feature writer and editor of This Magazine.
When Prime Minister Trudeau announced a Canadian woman would be featured on the next series of bank notes, I thought, “It’s about time!” I didn’t even consider the question Finance Minister Bill Morneau posed to the governor of the Bank of Canada of whether it was possible. Of course it’s possible. It’s 2016, right?
I began to think of women who should be featured on a bill. I thought of a recent heritage exhibit event called “Toronto the Just,” where local city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam pointed out that only five of 25 sculptures in the City of Toronto’s public art collection represent women. The exhibit sought to rectify that by featuring women who have made an impact on the city by challenging discrimination and inequities.
We need to recognize such women while they are here, because trailblazing itself takes a toll on their lives. We need to recognize women who do this work without recognition in academic and professional institutions, because they are systemically excluded from society themselves.
Sureya Ibrahim, a community engagement worker at the Centre for Community Learning and Development, is one of those women. I met her before launching Building Roads Together, a walking group program I designed to promote inclusion and mental health in a downtown Toronto neighbourhood called Regent Park, currently undergoing an extensive revitalization from low- to mixed-income housing. A colleague suggested I connect with her because she was a community leader who would be direct with me about the potential value of my initiative. Despite having planned the program based on my experience working in Regent Park and living nearby, I was nervous that she might be skeptical of it. Instead she embraced it, and suggested particular people who may be especially able to benefit from it: isolated people living in the new seniors building, mothers home alone while their young children were in school. Community members diverse in age, religion, gender, health status and more, participated — and they invited others. In the few years since I’ve grown to know how valued she is in Regent Park.
Ibrahim emmigrated to Canada from Harar, Ethiopia, when she was 17. She has lived in Regent Park for 18 years, contributing immensely to the community. Inspired by participating in an immigrant women’s integration program at the Centre for Community Learning in 2010, she now mentors women in that same program. She has also initiated neighbourhood yoga and zumba classes, and a catering co-operative for women. In 2015 she received a Jane Jacobs award, and was a Pan Am Games community torchbearer. She is currently working with community members and Toronto City Councillor Pam McConnell to make city recreation programs and facilities more accessible to low-income residents.
One fall day in 2014, I was on my way to meet Ibrahim at her office when police blocked off my walking route; they were in the midst of putting a nearby public school on lockdown. My heart raced, wondering what was happening. A crossing guard told me a teenaged boy (Yusuf Ali, I later learned) had been shot and killed down the street. I knew Ibrahim’s phone would start ringing with pleas for support. When I arrived at her office, she was just getting the news. Despite her own shock, she responded to a deluge of neighbour phone calls immediately, going into problem-solving mode.
When lauded at “Toronto the Just,” Ibrahim responded, "How can I rest when there are issues in the community?" I agree with Toronto Councillor Wong-Tam, who in emphasizing the need to publicly recognize more women, stated, "I want us to think about the women on our streets as well as the women on our banners." I believe Ibrahim should be on our banners, and on our bank notes.
Farah N. Mawani is a writer, researcher and strategist working at the nexus of human rights and mental health. She is founder of Building Roads Together and Farahway Global, a Research Associate at the Wellesley Institute, and equity lead for Women in Toronto Politics.
Illustrations by Rachel Idzerda
Update: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Harar, a city in Ethiopia. TVO.org regrets the error.
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