What BC Women Should Be on Canadian Banknotes?

Try these nominees, who made our country a better place on their own terms.

By Crawford Kilian 15 Mar 2016 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Canadians who've grown old with an equally aging Queen Elizabeth on their banknotes and coins should be very comfortable with the idea of portraying other women on currency.

And it makes sense to replace at least some of the prime ministers who now adorn our banknotes. Most Canadians likely don't even recognize Laurier on the five, or Mackenzie King on the 50, or Borden on the hundred; we've been taught so little about our own history that they're nonentities. Worse yet, we may recall them as presiding over the long horror of the residential schools, or the relegation of Japanese-Canadians to Second World War concentration camps.

British Columbians should certainly lobby for B.C. nominees, but the qualifications are vague. The Bank of Canada has set out very general criteria for female nominees:

• They are a Canadian (by birth or naturalization) who has demonstrated outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field, benefiting the people of Canada, or in the service of Canada.

• They have been deceased for at least 25 years.

So that rules out obvious B.C. candidates like the great politician Rosemary Brown, who died in 2003, or the author Joy Kogawa, who is still with us.

But I see a problem already. These are criteria based on male values and the male-dominated political culture we have lived in since the 18th century. Dr. Samuel Johnson once compared a woman preacher to a dog walking on its hind legs: The wonder is not that either does the job well, he claimed, but that they do it at all.

Pretending to be more enlightened than Dr. Johnson, we give a lot of patronizing attention to the women who first broke into male domains like law and medicine. But women are now the majority in our schools of law and medicine, and it matters less and less who was the first in this or that field.

Inflicting 'presentism' on the past

Let's get real: our present political enlightenment is only a few decades away from women always making and serving the coffee and changing the diapers, with no higher goal than to be a good wife. If we inflict our "presentism" on the politically convenient women of Canada's past, we are praising our own enlightened selves, not the women.

I suggest instead that we consider the women who had no say in changing the situation they were born into, but who did endure and change it at whatever personal cost it took. This is the predicament Queen Elizabeth herself has dealt with all her life, and countless less-fortunate women before her.

Given that premise, here are my nominees for our new Canadian banknotes:

For the $5 bill, I nominate Sylvia Stark. Born a slave in the U.S., she migrated north with her husband Louis in the 1858 B.C. gold rush. In 1860, with two small children, the Starks settled on Salt Spring Island, cleared some land, survived the smallpox epidemic of 1862, and raised a large family. Sylvia brought up the kids and lived on the island until 1944, when she died at the age of 106.

For the $10 bill, I nominate Sylvia's daughter Emma Stark, who grew up on Salt Spring (educated by the black teacher John Craven Jones), and became herself the first black schoolteacher on Vancouver Island. She died of tuberculosis in 1890, at 33.

For the $20 bill I nominate Amelia Douglas, the Franco-Irish-Cree woman born in 1812 who married James Douglas, himself the son of a Scot and a Guianese Creole woman. In mid-19th century Canada it was the "custom of the country" for fur traders to marry aboriginal women and then desert them and their children at the first opportunity for promotion. James Douglas was true to his wife even as he rose to become governor of British Columbia. She was the mother of our multiculturalism.

For the $50 bill I nominate Ethel Wilson, the matriarch of countless B.C. literary daughters and granddaughters. After a career as a schoolteacher, wife and mother, she published her first novel, Hetty Dorval, at the age of 59 and her classic Swamp Angel at 66.

And for the $100 bill I nominate the unknown aboriginal women who long before us designed and built the clam gardens that once sustained enormous populations on the B.C. coast.

They understood the sea and its tides, and with the men of their time endured the brute labour of moving rocks out to the low tide mark to form walls, where trapped sand would make inviting breeding sites for butter clams. Their efforts were undone by our smallpox, measles, and syphilis (and our amnesia), but their great-great-granddaughters and sons are patiently reclaiming the world the clam gardeners built.

It may be that we will soon move to a cashless society, as Sweden is doing. But until then, what we show on our banknotes tells us what we value as a society.

These B.C. women took Canada as they found it, and made it a better place than it had been. None were "leaders" in the masculine sense of the word, but they had one masculine trait our male politicians often lack: a spiritual toughness that kept them going no matter how harsh the obstacles they faced. If only for that, B.C.'s women remind us how this country was built, and how it must be sustained.  [Tyee]

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