Canada, like most of the world, has a generally dismal record in public commemoration. Whatever the makeup of the individual country, women and indeed human diversity largely disappear. Just check out the public spaces and buildings, the designated historic sites and monuments, the stamps, the entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography/Dictionnaire biographique du Canada, and, of course, national currencies everywhere. Absence is far from unimportant. As McGill philosopher Charles Taylor has reminded us, recognition reflects respect and inclusion in the national imaginary.
In channeling the spirit of contemporary scholarship and popular interest, the website, womensuffrage.org, reminds us we can do much better. Canadians can also take heart from the recent much-heralded addition of Jane Austen to the face of the pound sterling. British Columbia’s Merna Foster’s determined lobbying for women on currency of the Bank of Canada, the very operation headed by Mark Carney before he headed off to England to announce Austen’s elevation, now has an on-line petition as part of her arsenal (http://www.change.org/CanadaBankNotes).
Thoughtful Canadians can look west for inspiration. More than a decade ago the Sustainable Salt Spring Island Coalition led the way (http://saltspringdollars.com/about-us/history.html). Thanks to its determination, the 2001 Farmer’s Institute Fair introduced the island’s own 100% redeemable dollars. In 2007 a silver coin joined the treasury. Today there are $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills and a $50 silver coin. Community projects have been the beneficiary.
Still more extraordinary, however, is the visibility of otherwise disregarded Canadians. While the dollar bill conventionally singles out a top-hatted, bearded white patriarch from England (Henry Wright Bullock, 1856-1946), the next in line celebrates Matilda Naukana Harris, 1886-1953, whose Hawaiian heritage distinguished the early history of the province. In fact, the two buck bill scores three for three: the reverse side features a sculpture of a woman by artist Kathy Venter. But that is not all. For five dollars, you get a portrait of Sylvia Stark, 1839-1944, the Island’s Black pioneer. Next in line on the ten comes Jane Mouat, 1895-1935, a community-minded immigrant from the Shetlands. Only on the twenty do we return to a familiar bearded male, John P. Booth, 1839-1902, one time Speaker of the provincial legislature. By the time we get to the $50 note, G.E. “Ted” Akerman, 1873-1953 and Ellen Akerman née Gyves, 1871-1955, suggest marital, gender, and racial partnership: his origins were English while hers were Irish and Cowichan First Nation. And on its reverse, a little girl feeds ducks, swans, and geese. If all these initiatives didn’t warm the heart, we have only to turn to the $100 where Japanese pioneer and internment camp survivor, Kimiko Okano Murakami, 1904-1997, stands for the value of redress and recognition.
Canada’s largest Gulf Island appears delighted to recognize diversity. Indeed, in scoring better than 50% women, it offers compensatory action. Currency, like other forms of public recognition, from museums and art galleries to the names of streets and mountains, offers one measure of democracy’s foothold in communities. By that standard, Salt Spring points the way.
Ashley, Susan. “State Authority and the Public Sphere: Ideas on the Changing Role of the Museum as a Canadian Social Institution.” Museums and their Communities. Ed. Sheila Watson (Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2007): 485-500.
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McBurnie, Johanna. “Investigating the Role of Money: The Case of Salt Spring Dollars”. BA Thesis. Economics. University of Victoria. 2012. http://web.uvic.ca:8080/econ/undergraduate/programs/Honours%20Presentations/2011-2012/McBurnie.pdf
Macdonald, George F. and Stephen Alsford. “Canadian Museums and the Representation of Culture in a Multicultural Nation.” In Museums and their Communities. Ed. Sheila Watson (Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2007): 276-291.
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Strong-Boag, Veronica. “Experts on Our Own Lives: Commemorating Canada at the Beginning of the 21st Century”. The Public Historian. V. 31:1 (Winter 2009): 46-68.
Taylor, Charles and Amy Gutman, et al. Multiculturalism and ‘The politics of recognition’. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.