Time to Change the Faces on Our Money

It’s been loud lately. The tragic popping of gunfire from criminal minds in Paris and Alberta and from Canadian troops in Iraq, along with the sucking sound of the latest oil boom going bust have been loud indeed. Lost in the din have been two related arguments that deserve some attention.

The first began with Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. Many commemorated our first prime minister as a visionary. Others castigated him as a racist. The second was stirred by a letter from NDP MPs Niki Ashton and Murray Rankin to Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz in support of an effort begun a year ago by Victoria’s Merna Forster to have more women, such as the Famous Five, on our money.

The arguments are related because they go to the heart of our nationhood. Those we choose to celebrate in books or bronze, or on whatever that sticky polymer stuff passing as paper money is, say a great deal about the character traits and achievements we believe represent the best of us.

So perhaps we should remove Sir John from our money. But then, William Lyon Mackenzie King is on our 50, yet in the Second World War he interned Japanese-Canadians who had committed no crimes. Sir Robert Borden is on our 100, yet he approved his party’s virulently anti-Asian British Columbia campaign under the slogan “White Power.” Should they be removed from our money too?

Oscar Peterson banknote

Queen Elizabeth is the only woman currently on our currency. But does our sovereign’s visage remind us of our sovereignty’s limits? Does she represent a political system based on the hereditary passage of power that contradicts current Canadian values and has passed its best-before date? Accordingly, should she be removed from our money?

And what of the Famous Five? Their fame began when Edmonton’s Emily Murphy was appointed Canada’s first female police magistrate. Shortly afterward, an uppity male lawyer said she was unqualified because the constitution listed “Persons” who could be judges with the implication that they were male. Murphy and her Alberta friends took the case all the way to Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council where, in 1929, it was determined that women were Persons. It was an enormous step for women and toward citizenship and equality for all.

However, Emily Murphy was also a novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Janey Canuck. In The Black Candle, published in 1922, she wrote of non-White immigrants running the Canadian drug trade to intentionally defile White women and destroy the White race. The only option, she argued, was to purify Canada by ridding it of all people of colour. Should the writer of such reprehensible ideas be on Parliament hill, or on the Edmonton mural, or on our money? What would Sir John or those currently attacking him say?

The Ashton and Rankin letter states, “Our banknotes are an important opportunity to celebrate the diversity of our country and the innumerable contributions to its history made by people of all genders, ages, religions and ethnicities.” Perhaps agreeing with that very Canadian thought leads to a desire to replace all of the political figures now on our money with those who better animate our collective soul: our artists.

Susanna Moodie banknote

Louis Riel once said, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” He was right. Painters, poets, authors, songwriters, and sculptors and more speak to our intellects and emotions while inviting us to think deeper about that which truly matters. Let us celebrate those who help us celebrate our spirit.

The Bank of Canada regularly considers recommendations for changes to our currency and advises the minister of finance who signs off on new designs. Let the conversation begin. Mr. Poloz, for our 10, 20, 50 and 100 I recommend Oscar Peterson, Susanna Moodie, Norval Morrisseau, and Alice Munro.

This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on February 2, 2015. The Citizen created the images. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others through your favourite social media.

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It’s Time to Put R. B. Bennett on the Hill

It’s Time to Put Bennett on the Hill                                                       

History matters. It is the stories we tell ourselves and others about whom we are and who we aspire to be. Among the important ways we tell those stories are through the monuments we erect on Parliament Hill; the lawn outside our House. Sir John is there. So are Diefenbaker and Laurier, the Queen, the Famous Five, and more. But Parliament Hill’s story is incomplete for it is without a statue of Prime Minister R. B. Bennett. He deserves to be there. We need him there for visitors to ponder his life and contributions as reflections of the values we cherish as Canadians.

Bennett was a remarkable man. Born to a poor New Brunswick family, he was a school principal by age 19. Wanting more, he attended law school. Senator James Lougheed was so impressed with the young student that he offered a full partnership so that Lougheed-Bennett was born in the Wild West boomtown of Calgary. Bennett was soon president of several companies and on the boards of more. Through hard work, connections and good luck he became a multi-millionaire. But he was never inspired or impressed by wealth. He owned neither a car nor, until retirement, a house. He gave nearly all of his money to individuals, charities, schools and universities.

Bennett was an engaged citizen. He believed in the nobility of public service. He was a city counsellor, territorial representative, and then a member of Alberta’s provincial parliament. He was the first leader of the Alberta Conservative Party. He won a federal seat and served in cabinet. In 1927 he became leader of the federal Tories and then, in 1930, Canada’s prime minister – the first, but not the last from Calgary.

After suffering defeat in 1935, Bennett was an effective opposition leader for two years but then fulfilled a life-long dream and retired to England. The Second World War drew him back to public service. He led the preparation of the Royal Air Force by coordinating the building of planes and air strips. Churchill rewarded him with an appointment to the House of Lords where he worked hard to prepare for the post-war years.

Bennett was a transformational leader. He became prime minister just as the Great Depression was entering its darkest days. The Red Tory principles that he had espoused throughout his life led to policies that respected the positive power of capitalism and a constructive role for government.

Bennett’s government provided immediate relief for those in need and then restructured the economy to mitigate the impacts of future economic calamities. He modernized unemployment insurance, established a minimum wage and limits on work hours, extended federally-backed farm credit, enacted anti-monopoly legislation, and saved thousands of farms with a revamped Wheat Board. He wrestled control of monetary policy from chartered banks with the establishment of the indispensable Bank of Canada. To protect and promote Canadian culture and national unity, Bennett formed the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission that became the CBC.

His legacy also includes increased trade with a host of countries and a trade deal with America that was enacted weeks after he left office. He negotiated a treaty that later served as the framework for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Bennett’s bold actions led to a reinterpretation of the constitution that allowed the creation of many of the social policies which Canadians now proclaim as their birthright.

Bennett was not a perfect prime minister. There is no such thing. He was not a perfect human being – none of us are. But he was a remarkable man, a generous philanthropist, an engaged citizen and a transformational leader. His contributions, principles, and the questions his life forces us to ponder helps us understand ourselves and our country. R. B. Bennett’s story deserves to be a larger part of our collective story. We should begin our consideration of its place and lessons by placing a commemorative statue of R. B. Bennett on Parliament Hill.

(For more on R. B. Bennett see Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation (Goose Lane Editions) available at: amazon.ca and chapters.indigo.ca

(This was published as an op. ed. column in Ottawa’s Hill Times on April 28, 2014)