In Canada, prior to the “Scenes of Canada” series of currency notes, which debuted in 1969, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II appeared on all bills in circulation, as she still appears on the obverse of all the coins in circulation. As Canada’s head of state and the guarantor of the entire thing, this is just and fitting. However, Betty Windsor is also the head of a number of other states, doesn’t even live in Canada, and is a living symbol of unearned privilege and imperial conquest, etc. So the Scenes of Canada series, in accord with the mood in the 1960s, tried to insert some uniquely Canadian Content: the Queen remained on the $1, $2, and $20 bills, but former Prime Ministers appeared on the others: Laurier on the $5, Macdonald on the $10, King on the $50, and Borden on the $100. These were judged to be the most influential heads of government to date, and they were balanced with two from each of the major political parties. They did not represent sovereignty as such, but they were important people in Canadian history who exercised actual political power. This pattern remained with the Birds of Canada series, the Canadian Journey series, and the current Frontier series.
Politicians, however, don’t get the respect that they used to, and balance between political parties is not the sort of diversity that we cherish anymore. Sir John A. Macdonald, father of Confederation and first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada, was also responsible for Chinese exclusion, for the Indian residential school system, and for the execution of Louis Riel. Plus, he was a raging alcoholic. So his statue has been removed from in front of the Victoria, B.C., city hall, the Canadian Historical Association has removed his name from one of the prizes it awards, and as of 2018 his image has been replaced on the $10 note with one Viola Desmond, Canada’s equivalent of Rosa Parks.* So it appears that people on currency notes no longer need any connection to governance at all – in fact, “resisters” of the established order now get monetary memorialization. I’m not saying this is bad necessarily, but the advantage of putting the sovereign on the notes, or important Prime Ministers, is that the choice is obvious – there can be little debate about who should go on, and focusing on the top of the pyramid represents, in its way, everyone below. Once one expands the category to include important Canadians of all stripes, one opens a can of worms. Who gets to go on?!** Generally such memorialization is what postage stamps are for, since there is a potentially limitless number of designs for that particular medium. (Although I wonder, with the deprecation of physical cash, will currency notes soon become like stamps, with multiple designs in circulation at any one time, and new designs introduced every year? Think of how much seignorage the government could make as people collect them! Alternately, maybe we should take the attitude towards human portraits on bills that we take towards human sports mascots – best to avoid them entirely, as does the European Union.)
But since they’ve taken Sir John A. off the ten, they now feel they have to take Laurier off the five. Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz has recently stated that:
the bank will launch public consultations for the design of the polymer note, similar to the ones “that led to the selection of Viola Desmond for the $10 note,” he said. “This time we will be asking all Canadians to nominate any historic Canadian — someone who is truly banknote-able.”
A friend of mine suggests that Louis Riel should go on. Personally I think that this would be akin to putting Robert E. Lee on an American note but I guess not all armed rebellions against state authority are equal….
At this point it does not appear that they’ve set up a website asking for suggestions.
UPDATE: From the National Post: “Would Gord Downie even want Gord Downie on the $5 bill?” (Gord Downie being the lead singer of the Canadian rock act The Tragically Hip, who died of glioblastoma in 2017.)
* In 1946, Desmond, a Nova Scotian of African descent, refused to leave a whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, N.S. (It should be noted that the racial segregation was theatre policy, not provincial law.) She was arrested and convicted of tax evasion, since the tax on the floor seats was one cent more than the tax on the balcony seats. She received a posthumous pardon in 2010.
The United States is contemplating something similar. I have heard for several years now that President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), frontiersman and champion of the common man, but also slaveholder and remover of the Cherokee, is to be removed on the front of the $20 bill, with Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave and conductor of the Underground Railroad, put in his place. But this move seems to have put on hold as a result of the change in administration in 2017.
** I recall that, during the debate about changing the $10 bill, that they wanted to put a Canadian woman it, not realizing that the Queen is a Canadian woman. It reminded me of Mark Steyn’s response to the claim that Adrienne Clarkson was the “first immigrant Governor General”: “Ok, then, who was Viscount Monck – some hardscrabble lobster fisherman who came west and made it big on the street of dreams in Ottawa?”