More meaningful money?

December 14, 2016   ·   0 Comments

CANADIAN CURRENCY will start to have a new look next year, when the image of Viola Desmond displaces that of Sir Wilfrid Laurier on the $5 bill.

As we see it, the decision should be welcomed by one and all, for at least two reasons. One is that, except for the image of the Queen on the $20 bill, all the other denominations portray former prime ministers, all of them being male.

However, selection of Ms. Desmond will provide us with more than a touch of gender equality, since it serves to remind us that racial segregation in North America wasn’t a phenomenon found only in the southern States.

We suspect that prior to the news of Ms. Desmond’s selection few Canadians realized that racial segregation once existed in Canada, that Ontario had racially segregated schools, and that it wasn’t until 1983 that the last such school closed in Nova Scotia.

Viola Desmond, a successful Halifax business woman who ran the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, was visiting New Glasgow, N.S., in November 1946 when she decided to see a movie while her car was being serviced. At the theatre she decided to sit downstairs because she was short-sighted and did not know the theatre was racially segregated, with the town’s few blacks being required to sit up in the balcony.

The theatre manager and ticket agent followed her in and when she wouldn’t move called police. She was forcefully removed her from the theatre, jailed overnight and was ultimately convicted of tax evasion – failure to pay the additional cent charged for seats in the orchestra – and ordered to pay a $20 fine and $6 court charges. Her appeal to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal was dismissed on a technicality.

Although her action has been compared to that of Rosa Parks, her arrest came nearly a decade before that of Ms. Parks, whose fame as a civil rights activist stemmed from her refusal to give up a bus seat to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama.

Although most Canadians know that slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834 and that untold numbers of slaves fled to Canada via the “Underground Railroad,” the fact is that many United Empire Loyalists brought slaves with them when they headed to present-day Ontario and Nova Scotia. In 1793,  Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe spearheaded enactment of an Act Against Slavery of 1793, which legislated the gradual abolition of slavery: no slaves could be imported but those already in the colony would remain enslaved until death. Children of female slaves would start life as slaves but must be freed at age 25.

Rightly or wrongly, we see the planned departure from having only politicians grace our polymer currency as more evidence of the fact Canadians are far more open to change than our neighbours to the south, who continue to  cling to paper “greenbacks”, the $1 bill and the penny.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the currency portrayals. Will all the politicians be discarded in favour of Canadians who have prospered in other areas, such as sports, the arts and medicine? Will we one day have Gordie Howe on the $10 bill, Tom Thomson on the $20 or Frederick Banting on the $50?

Perhaps there’s a lot to be said for changing the portrayals frequently, to make them tougher to counterfeit while encouraging us to look at the bills to see what information they might convey.

How many of us have noticed that the $5 bill celebrates the Canadarm, or that the back side of the $20 appears to include an image of the twin towers of Toronto’s “new” city hall?

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