By Kaleigh Bradley
Last month, on International Women’s Day, Trudeau announced that by 2018, “an iconic Canadian woman” would appear on the next issue of bank notes. Up until April 18th, 2016, the Bank of Canada issued an open call for nominations of #bankNOTEable women. In order to quality, the woman in question had to be a Canadian citizen (by birth or naturalization), deceased for at least twenty-five years, and had to have demonstrated “outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field.”
After the initial call, the Bank of Canada’s Advisory Council will review the crowed-sourced list of candidates to create a list of 10-12. The Canadian public will then be able to vote from this list on the Bank’s website and these votes will be used to ensure the nominees are a representative sample of our country. The list will be narrowed down to a few names, experts will be consulted, and according to custom, the Minister of Finance will make the final decision. It’s clear that officials are trying to ensure that the selection process is inclusive and representative of all Canadians. The Advisory Committee is comprised of experts and representatives from different interest groups. Public input is welcome and the list of candidates will be crowd-sourced. Despite these efforts, the process of commemoration is polarizing and the initial call has led to some important public discussions about commemoration and Canadian history.
Popular choices included artist Emily Carr, War of 1812 “heroine” Laura Secord, author Lucy Maud Montgomery, civil rights icon Viola Desmond, Indigenous poet E. Pauline Johnson, and Harriet Tubman, who helped 300 slaves enter Canada through the underground railway.
Discussions about who should be selected has me thinking about the importance of history and memory in our everyday lives. History is on our money, in the street or place names we use, the architecture we see, in the song lyrics we enjoy, and within and outside of the boundaries of the landscapes we build. The history we experience around us might not reflect our own memories, histories, and identities. Acts of remembering, boundary-making, erasure, naming, and commemoration are often political, contested, divisive, and sometimes deeply personal.
As H.V. Nelles argues in The Art of Nation Building, commemoration and myth-making are performances, acts of self-invention on the part of the nation state and the cultural elite. Myth-making and commemorations tell us more about the agenda of the state and our priorities as a society today, than they do about the events and people we seek to commemorate.
Commemoration serves to validate particular national myths and historical narratives. In Canada, there are so many conflilcting histories that it’s hard to tell one story about colonialism, our track record with immigration and multiculturalism, our relationship to the monarchy, our artistic history and cultural institutions, and Quebec nationalism, just to name a few. Is there really one history, or one woman who can be representative for all of us? Is there a history that we can all adhere to? And why does this even matter? What does it mean to elevate one individual to an iconic status?
This is in no way a comprehensive analysis, but rather a reflection on Canadian public memory. Let’s start with the Famous Five, who proved to be controversial figures. Some Canadians suggested that we bring back the Famous Five (Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy the most popular), who appeared on the bill between 2004-2012. Commentators said that they were pioneering women and feminist icons who deserved more recognition. Others protested the return of the Famous Five, citing their belief in eugenics and their discriminatory attitudes towards non-white immigrants. The idea of ‘whitewashing’ history, or choosing to ignore undesirable traits is important to consider.
Our relationship to the Crown has evolved over the twentieth century, and Canadians are split on the significance of our head of state on our currency. Some think that adding a woman to our money is irrelevant because the Queen already appears on most of the denominations. But for some, it is important to continue our monarchist traditions by keeping the Queen. The debate about removing or keeping the Queen on our money demonstrates that our choices and the ways we choose to represent ourselves are not only influenced by our history, but by current issues and concerns. Do Canadians want Canada to be a republic or remain in the Commonwealth?
I found that the majority of the suggestions were white middle-class women, but it was great to see some influential African Canadian and Indigenous women make the list as well. Commentators thought it was important that Canada include a representative from marginalized groups. Colonialism, institutionalized racism, and discriminatory immigration policies are also part of our history and it’s important that we honour those who fought (and are still fighting) for equality and acceptance. It was great to see people highlight the importance of remembering the darker chapters in our history.
If the Famous Five appear on our money, are we ignoring racism and the history of eugenics? Or are we honouring them simply as feminist icons who advanced the status of women? If we put Laura Secord or Emily Carr on the bill, are we forgetting about important Indigenous of African Canadian women? The selection process and the public debate surrounding the nominations exposes the dichotomies and the counter-narratives in Canadian history. It’s good that we are having these discussions, instead of quietly accepting the next person on our bill. There is no ‘perfect’ choice, there is not one woman that we could select who isn’t flawed, or whose promotion to iconic status might offend some.
And then there were people who thought we could avoid these issues altogether by removing individuals from our money, and replacing them with more neutral landscapes and wildlife.
Memory is a contested terrain. It’s great to see everyone so passionate about how we choose to represent our history. For us as individuals and as a society, historical memory helps situate us in time and space. Acts of commemoration, whether they are subtle or obvious, shape and brush up against our collective memories and identities. Decisions about how we control, represent, and manage our histories, such as the upcoming commemoration of a Canadian woman on our currency, are sometimes made with assumptions about our past(s). One person cannot tell all of our stories, and as we’ve seen, the selection process is controversial. It will be interesting to watch how the story unfolds by 2018, and to see who eventually makes the cut.
Kaleigh Bradley is an editor at ActiveHistory.ca.
Note on sources:
The images appearing in this post are screenshots that were gathered from comment sections from recent CBC articles appearing here, here and here.
This is a good overview, Kaleigh. The main problem that I have with this competition is that the process of crowd-sourcing with criteria mostly generates the impression of democracy and engagement while maintaining the status quo.
On the one hand, you have a smaller group prominent women who have been deceased for at least 25 years (the minimum requirement of the group, but also the HSMBC), who then have the lens of presentism applied to their contributions. On the other hand, you have a vast selection of women whose significance won’t be officially recognized until a quarter century after their death. The end result, I fear, may be either commemorative tokenism or commemoration by the establishment.