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Letter to Prime Minister Trudeau from Merna Forster
30 November 2015

In July 2013, historian and author Merna Forster began a petition calling on the Bank of Canada and the Minister of Finance (who approves bank note designs) to celebrate female Canadian historical figures on Canadian bank notes. She has now appealed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to get involved, and sent the following letter on November 30, 2015.

Canadian women on banknotes petition

The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister of Canada
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

Congratulations on winning a majority government in the recent federal election, and becoming the 23rd prime minister of Canada. I would also like to commend you for appointing Canada’s first gender-equal cabinet. “Because it’s 2015,” I’d like to bring to your attention another equality issue that requires action: the celebration of women from Canadian history on our bank notes.

When Mark Carney was governor of the Bank of Canada, the Bank decided to remove the images of the first notable Canadian women who made it onto our bank notes. In 2011, the Bank of Canada began issuing new $50 polymer bills which replaced images of The Famous 5 and Thérèse Casgrain with an icebreaker – rather than images of other female historical figures. While Queen Elizabeth II is featured, there are again no women from Canadian history on our bills.

Who and what is celebrated on our bank notes matters, as it reflects what we consider important in our culture and history and who we consider worthy of honouring for achievement. Women are not absent from the list of notable worthies in Canada, just notably absent or under-represented in many of the images that surround us and which contribute to our view of the world and our potential role in it.

In a situation very similar to the Canadian one, plans were announced several years ago by the Bank of England to remove Elizabeth Fry from the face of £5 notes and replace her with Winston Churchill. A storm of criticism led to public protests, a petition signed by over 35,000 people, and the threat of legal action funded by donations. As governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney soon announced that author Jane Austen would be featured on new £10 notes. British journalists such as Danica Kirka praised the decision as "a sign that there is plenty of pride and little prejudice against women on the country's currency."

Can the same be said in Canada, or are we to assume that the approach of the Bank of Canada indicates plenty of prejudice and little pride in Canadian women? An all-male line-up on bank notes is not acceptable in Canada, any more than it was in the United Kingdom. Australia provides an excellent example of including nation builders of both genders on bank notes. Most of the current notes feature a notable woman as well as a man, and a website provides biographies of each of the people depicted: http://banknotes.rba.gov.au/ausbanknotes.html#!note/10.

The exclusion of real, identifiable women in Canadian history perpetuates the myth that those of the female sex have not made valuable contributions to their country – and are not worthy of being depicted on bills that the Bank of Canada has indicated "reflect Canadian culture, history, and achievements."

Several years ago I created a petition at change.org/CanadianHeroines, calling on the Bank of Canada – and the Minister of Finance who must approve the notes – to make a firm commitment to include women from Canadian history on all future bank notes. Given the role of the federal government in this process and the failure of the Bank of Canada to take action, I have now added you to the petition. As of today it has been signed by more than 64,587 people, including notable Canadians such as Margaret Atwood and Judy Rebick, and attracted extensive media coverage.

Canadians are extremely upset about the absence of Canadian women on bank notes as well as the lack of diversity of people honoured on our notes. As Alexandra Pittiglio from Ontario remarked on the petition page, “Our colourful money is a representation of the diversity, beauty and inclusiveness found in Canada's people and landscapes. It's time for the faces on the front to match that representation. Women also live here. And on that note, so do people who are not white.”

Canadians want the Bank of Canada and the Government of Canada, through the Minister of Finance and other departments that I understand are involved in the selection and approval process, to resolve this issue by committing to celebrating women from Canadian history on all future bank notes and proceeding with a selection process. In a modern nation that claims to be a world leader in promoting and protecting women’s rights and gender equality, there are no excuses for sexist bank notes that don’t honour even one Canadian heroine. Countries around the world – from Turkey to Peru, Columbia, Mexico and South Korea – celebrate at least one or two heroines from their respective nations, and Australia honours four notable Australian women.

I ask the Government of Canada to take action to ensure that at least one woman from Canadian history is honoured on the front of bank notes which supposedly belong to all Canadians. Women hold up half the sky, and many believe that in an equalitarian country they should hold up half the bank notes.

Sincerely yours,
Merna Forster

Petition: Change.org/CanadianHeroines
www.heroines.ca, A Guide to Women in Canadian History
Author of 100 Canadian Heroines, and 100 More Canadian Heroines

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