Merna Forster is a Canadian historian and author based out of Victoria, B.C. whose work celebrates the contributions of women in the nation’s history. While she has been involved in numerous initiatives to promote Canadian women in history, her most recent endeavor is a petition to include Canadian women on banknotes. We sat down with Forster to talk about her campaign.
How did your petition start?
A few years ago, when those new Bank of Canada polymers started rolling off the press, I realized that the only Canadian women to ever make it onto the banknotes had been removed. On the back of the $50 bill, we had the statues of the Famous 5 from the Persons Case; they were replaced by an icebreaker. I certainly understand that themes change for each series, but I really think it was unacceptable not add other women from Canadian history onto other bills.
Then I had heard there was a similar situation in the United Kingdom, where there were plans to remove the only British woman, aside from the Queen, on their banknotes. A petition was started there and 35,000 people that signed it. There was a threat of legal action and many Members of Parliament got involved. The situation was quickly resolved and they announced a beautiful design of a note that would feature Jane Austen.
I talked to the organizer of that campaign and she encouraged me to start a petition here. I started it in July 2013.
The petition in the U.K. got 35,000 signatures and saw change. Your petition now has 52,000 signatures. Have you received any word from the Bank of Canada?
I have sent them a number of letters and received responses. But in a letter from November 2013, Mr. Poloz, the BOC’s Governor, Director and Chairman of the Executive Committee, said it would be premature to commit to including Canadian women in all future series.
The BOC always issues statements saying that our banknotes belong to all Canadians; they reflect Canada. How can they possibly reflect Canada when they exclude half of the population? They should depict a wider range of Canadians of both genders, as well as various ethnic origins. Right now on the front of our bills, we have four white, male prime ministers and the Queen.
Why do you feel this important to Canada?
Being a modern nation, we’re a world leader in the promotion and protection of women’s rights and gender equality. In my mind if we really want to be a leader, the federal government and its various agencies, including the Bank of Canada, should act accordingly. To me, it clearly shows to me prejudice against Canadian women; it’s discriminatory, insulting and offensive.
What have been the responses from people who have signed your petition?
People can post their reasons for signing the petition and there are thousands of wonderful comments. For example, a man from Toronto said, ‘It’s ridiculous that this even requires discussion and petition in the 21st-century. It’s a national embarrassment for Canada.’ The Chief of the Kluane First Nation in Burwash, Yukon wrote, ‘Featuring women who have achieved great things for Canada should be common sense (cents!).’
Why banknotes, as opposed to other avenues, for better representation for women?
I think everything matters; all the symbols that surround us matter. One person wrote on the petition, ‘Little girls need to know that they are persons who grow into women with much to offer to Canada.’ Many people say it’s important because invisibility is equated with unimportance in our culture. When the banknote issue came up, I couldn’t let that slide. There are many other things that I could move on to after this, but this was symbolic and important.
What about the representation of aboriginal women?
Many people have suggested that it’s of particular importance to have an aboriginal woman featured on a banknote, and I agree. Let’s show a particular respect to aboriginal women. A few suggestions that I’ve seen to represent aboriginal women are Kenojuak Ashevak, a celebrated Inuit artist from Cape Dorset, Taqulittuq, an Inuit woman who was a guide and interpreter, Mary Two-Axe Earley, who crusaded for aboriginal women’s rights, Molly Brant, the powerful Mohawk woman who was the head of the Six Nations, and many others.
Have you received any backlash?
I have had some backlash — maybe 15 or 20 nasty comments. People have searched my public Facebook page and sent me some mean things. I don’t answer; I just block them. There has been a lot of national media coverage about this and when those articles go online, I used to read some of comments in response. But I had to stop, because it seems to bring out a very worrisome undercurrent of hostility towards women. Instead, I focus on the comments of the ten of thousands of people who have signed the petition.
When did you become interested representing female figures in Canada’s history?
When I was growing up, I really didn’t hear about any women in Canadian history. I went to university and got my BA in history and biology and again, I didn’t learn about them. Then I started working for Parks Canada and through my travels to sites across the country; I discovered stories of amazing women I had never heard of. So in 2004, I created heroines.ca: A guide to women in Canadian history. It was a personal attempt at an educational website. Shortly after, I wrote my first book, 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. In 2011, I wrote my second book, 100 More Canadian Heroines.
What’s the next step in this campaign?
It depends on how many signatures it takes to get the Bank of Canada to do the right thing. It seems to me that in the U.K., the involvement of MPs played a critical role. Last year, I wrote a letter to every Canadian MP, and some signed the petition. But I really need people in politics who are willing to be champions. Our MPs have to stand up and be counted and tell the Bank of Canada and the Minister of Finance that they have to fix this.