On Nov. 19, Canada welcomed a new angle — literally — to their history and currency, with input from one of UVic’s very own.
Over a year before Viola Desmond, a prominent defender of civil rights and social justice in Canada, emerged as the new face on the vertical 10 dollar bill the Bank of Canada had a list of 461 historic women they had deemed bank note-able. In the months that followed, the list would be whittled down to 12, then five.
Along this lengthy road to the final design was Carolyn Butler-Palmer, a professor of Art History and Visual Studies at UVic, who was selected by the Bank of Canada to provide feedback in the consultation process.
“It was definitely a fun project to work on, though I have to say, it was a little bit odd working in secrecy,” Butler-Palmer said. “It felt a little bit cloak-and-dagger, almost.”
The Bank of Canada initially reached out after Butler-Palmer’s exhibition on Ellen Neel, an Indigenous artist and carver, drew national attention through coverage in The Globe and Mail.
“It was a real honour to be asked and to be able to work on such an important change in our currency.”
Her involvement in the project lasted about five months, and Butler-Palmer said the consultation was extensive as she got to weigh in on a range of variations for the bill’s design. For nearly a year, she was contractually obligated not to say a word to anyone about her involvement with the project.
“It was a real honour to be asked and to be able to work on such an important change in our currency,” Butler-Palmer said. “I think the change is really reflected too, [particularly] that they changed the orientation as well … to signify the change in the way that they represent Viola Desmond on that bill.”
During her time consulting on the changes, it had already been determined that the new bill would be vertical. The overall theme of social justice and the struggle for rights and freedoms had been decided on, shown also by the decision to feature Canada’s Human Rights Museum on the bill’s back.
Butler-Palmer did take part in endorsing Desmond as a figure who needed to be represented, particularly for the sake of reclaiming Canada’s “dark history” and bringing light to the country’s more alternative heroic figures.
“There were representations of women [on money] besides the Queen prior to this, but part of [that] was to bring women into the currency, so to speak, and into the history of Canada and into the importance of women’s work in the history of Canada,” said Butler-Palmer.
Viola Desmond is best known for refusing to accept racial discrimination in a segregated movie theatre in Nova Scotia.
“In the case of Viola Desmond, it was also to extend that history to maybe what we want to call the dark history of Canada — and that has to do with the treatment of black women in Canada or black people in Canada, which is largely unexplored in Canadian art history or in Canadian history.”
Desmond is best known for refusing to accept racial discrimination in a segregated movie theatre in Nova Scotia, and sitting in the whites-only section (which had a one cent difference in ticket cost) in order to get a better view. For this, she was convicted of tax evasion, fined $26 dollars without being informed of her legal right to a lawyer, and spent 12 hours in jail. In 2010, 45 years after her death, Desmond was posthumously pardoned by the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia.
It’s easy to shy away from discussing difficult truths and controversial situations, such as the injustices faced by Desmond and others in Canadian history and current society. But if we’re not having these difficult conversations, if Canada does not take responsibility and face its problematic past, Butler-Palmer said that change won’t take place, putting our nation on track to repeat the past.
“We’re often blind to the injustices that others have endured, and I think currency in one respect is even more powerful for rewriting those histories and bringing those histories forward because it is circulated across the nation — actually, around the world,” she said.
“There are so many people who don’t fit the conventional idea of leaders of the Canadian nation, [but are leaders] that should be honoured and should be a part of our history.”
The faces on these bills have traditionally been individuals of status and privilege. One of the four individuals Desmond will replace on the $10 will be John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, who has been widely criticized for his racist and unjust treatment of Indigenous people and other minorities in Canada.
“There needs to be representations of those sort of unsung heroes,” said Butler-Palmer. “To say that those are noble figures … heroic figures … superheroes … that they are equally as important as monarchs and as prime ministers.”
The Bank of Canada has announced that the efforts to commemorate iconic Canadians will soon continue as consultation begins on a new design for the five dollar bill, which will include the face of another historic individual. The consultation process is expected to take a few years, and will be followed by the redesign of the remaining $20, $50, and $100 bills every two to three years after that.
“This design approach affords the opportunity to showcase and celebrate more great Canadians, while maintaining our proud historic roots,” reads the Bank of Canada’s website.
While statues and commemorative buildings have a limited reach, Canadian currency has the power to move across the globe and represent Canada far beyond its borders. Butler-Palmer believes it is important to remain conscious of the faces we choose to line our wallets.
“There are just so many women and people who don’t fit the conventional idea of leaders of the Canadian nation, [but are leaders] that should be honoured and should be a part of our history,” said Butler-Palmer. “That’s how we come to know them, through those commemorative acts such as dollar bills.”