Viola Desmond’s addition to Canadian currency a welcome change.
Where art is a family affair. Celebrating a half century of the Canada Games. A woman of note. Manitoba town’s novel name. Flight of a lifetime at Vimy Ridge.
Canada began a new and exciting chapter of its history with the recent selection of Viola Desmond as the first Canadian woman to have her solo portrait on the front of a banknote. While most tweets and comments have focused on her gender, this news is even more meaningful: It signals the end of Canada focusing exclusively on commemorating old white men as national symbols.
For many decades, Canada has been a world leader in celebrating multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion. Yet the symbols of who we are as a nation have been slow to adapt to our changing demographic realities. Canadians may not see our national currency as an element of commemoration, but it is the most common way Canadians interact with their national history. For example, we are reminded every time we pull out a five-dollar bill that Sir Wilfrid Laurier was our first francophone prime minister.
The inclusion of Desmond’s image on the 2018 printing of the ten-dollar bill will be an acknowledgement that Canada celebrates diversity. Especially significant is the fact that she is replacing Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
The notion of Macdonald as a national unifying symbol has always been challenging for Canadians.The Liberal governments of Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King were not keen to commemorate the memory of Macdonald, a Conservative, due to his involvement in scandals and overt acts of partisanship during his long tenure as prime minister. Macdon- ald’s residential school legacy and the approval of the 1885 hanging of Métis leader Louis Riel ensured that significant portions of Canada’s population could never rally around Macdonald as a national symbol. Even Macdonald’s self-declared greatest supporter — former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker — was wary of elevating the memory of Macdonald, recognizing that his Québec caucus would not support such actions.
The move away from commemorating old white men has happened elsewhere. In South Africa, the rand used to bear the likeness of Jan van Riebeeck, the seventeenth-century Dutch explorer who arrived in Cape Town. Van Riebeeck’s image was used for more than fifty years to highlight white rule over the black population. After the fall of apartheid, the old white explorer was replaced with a portrait of Nelson Mandela, a symbol of the new South Africa.
Macdonald’s admirers should not worry — his image is not disappearing completely. Rather, Macdonald and Laurier will eventually bump Sir Robert Borden (on the one-hundreddollar bill) and King (on the fifty-dollar bill).
Meanwhile, Viola Desmond’s addition to the ten-dollar bill will serve as a reminder to all that women and visible minorities have played a crucial role in the development of our country.
From left: Bank of Canada Governor Stephen S. Poloz, then Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu, Wanda Robson, sister of Viola Desmond, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau reveal the image of Viola Desmond, who will be the first Canadian woman on the front of a banknote.