Money’s got soul
What goes on our bills says a lot about us
These five women are the only women—non-royal—to grace our currency. GRAPHIC VIVIEN LEUNG
Beyond their first-wave feminist rallying, many of the Famous Five openly espoused racist views; some even supported eugenics legislation.
The argument started with five women and a $50 bill. In early 2000, as happens every 10 years or so, the Canadian government redesigned our bills to add security measures, to put in tactile features for the visually impaired and just generally freshen them up. To get them just right the Bank of Canada, who oversees the design and printing of the bills, consulted over 4,000 Canadians from across the country.
The problem arose with a group of five women known as the Famous Five. Consisting of Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Irene Parlby, the Famous Five were responsible for bringing the landmark Persons case before the Supreme Court of Canada in 1929. In their appeal, these five women asked that the court clarify whether women were considered people in the eyes of the law. The court came back with a resounding “no,” but many agree that the case opened the door for serious public debate on women’s rights.
To honour these pioneers, it was suggested they be added to the $50 bill in the most recent series of bills, Canadian Journey. The only hiccough? Beyond their first-wave feminist rallying, many of the Famous Five openly espoused racist views; some even supported eugenics legislation that would, among other things, mandate forced sterilization for the mentally disabled and inmates.
But why should that really matter? The images on bank notes are just tiny pictures on pieces of paper that people use to buy things.
“I think most people care about what their money looks like,” explained Andrius Tomonis. “[A country’s money gives] you a sort of feeling about the soul of a place.”
Tomonis is a notaphilist—banknote collector—and runs an online business buying and selling bills from all over the world called banknotes.com. He’s been collecting banknotes since the ‘80s when he was 12 years old.
“My father had a book full of bank notes,” he said. “When he died I found it and started collecting.”
Tomonis believes that what a country puts on a bill says a great deal not only about the kind of people who live there but the country they live in.
“When [the country is] a dictatorship you’ll usually just see a picture of a politician on the bills,” said Tomonis. “When you have a true democracy, you put something that applies to the whole population on the bills, you put something that everyone can connect with.”
Julie Girard, a senior analyst for the Bank of Canada, agreed.
“Bank notes are a national symbol that represent a country to its citizens and to people around the world,” she said. All of the designs are evaluated for whether or not they represent a national, rather than regional, perspective, whether they reflect our modern country, and whether they will still be relevant a decade from now.
At the consultations, the issue of the Famous Five’s questionable points of view and political histories were raised. Though they had contributed significantly to Canada’s history, there were aspects to these women that were definitely “un-Canadian.”
Frances Wright, founder of the Famous 5 Foundation, defended the contribution of these women.
“All people—including our heroes—are complex beings with strengths and weaknesses,” the foundation’s website explains. “The information [these women] received was filtered through a lens coloured by their limited experiences.”
Though flawed, these women taught Canadians a lesson we value to this day. So the Famous Five have joined the Canadian prime ministers, John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, Bill Reid’s Haida sculptures and Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater as indelible pieces of Canadiana. Around the world people will pick up our currency and see a little piece of Canada’s soul.