I’m a Boomer, and I’m old enough to remember when the mud-brown two dollar bill with a view of Richmond, Quebec on the back was common currency. In fact, I have a framed twenty from the year of my birth, dated 1954. It’s a pale shade of green and looks like an American bill. The Queen on the front is obviously new at her job. On the back are pine trees shrouded in snow. Apparently, the first notes issued in the 1954 series are known as the “Devil’s Head” notes because of some perceived arrangement of the Queen’s hair, but I can’t find anything sinister on mine.
My Twitter™ profile says I’m a “pollster, actor and sailor” in that order. I’ve talked quite a bit about the acting in these pages, and about the sailing, but not much about the polling. Some of it is confidential, and most of the rest is boring unless you are obsessed and consumed by politics. Occasionally, though, there are interesting assignments.
In the late 90s, I worked on a project researching the design for the next generation of banknotes to succeed the Birds of Canada series (my favourite was the Snowy Owl, or Harfang de Neige, on the $50). They were due to be released in 2001, We were to go and talk to all the communities in Canada, and my job was, as usual, to go talk to the hardest to reach. My itinerary included First Nations reserves, communities north of the Arctic Circle and new Canadians in the cities where they land.
I put in a lot of travel that year. The new series of notes was to be called Canadian Journeys, and had to highlight Canadian arts and heritage. We were testing people and images to put on the bills, but we were also testing the new materials for the next series of bills, due to be released in 2011, and the ones you use today. Yes, we were testing that plastic back in the last century, because the Royal Canadian Mint doesn’t do anything quickly. That’s why we don’t have a Steve Fonyo bill. In any event, I was carrying a couple of hundred dollars in Australian currency with me, because Oz had just made the switch to plastic the year before, and it was all we had to show people.
I traveled west, I traveled north, I traveled by air and rental car (mostly rental car). I stayed in motels where they don’t get CNN. Here are a couple of the key things we learned:
– People expect the Queen to be on the money, but can’t quite remember what bills she is on. She’s never mentioned first as choice to put on a bill, though
– The first choice is always Terry Fox. Eager young First Nations teenagers at a boarding school in Northern Saskatchewan, a hotel meeting room full of Punjabis, Pilipinas, Kenyans and Grenadians, a group of HIV-positive patients in a hospice rec room, first class passengers in a Maple Leaf lounge, they all wanted Terry Fox on a bill. I’m puzzled, with this unanimity of response, and the fact he’s been dead for more than three decades, that he isn’t on the currency yet.
– The second choice is almost always Wayne Gretzky.  Even when it is explained the person being memorialized generally has to be dead (except the Queen), people think the Great One deserves a bill. I think any number of more iconic hockey players would precede Gretzky, even alive. Howe, Richard, Kennedy, etc.
– The most interesting idea we got was from several First Nations respondents. A series of bills commemorating great First Nations leaders, like Poundmaker, Tecumseth, Joseph Brant; even Louis Riel (which would be a fitting apology for his hanging).
The Mint was determined to put the Famous Five, Nellie McClung and her fellow campaigners on a bill. The $5 was an obvious choice, but that’s not how it worked out. They ended up on the $50 (at least a multiple of 5). This sounds well and good, the Famous Five were responsible for the “Persons” case that established women were persons and could vote.
I did some reading into Nellie McClung and the others. It turns out, by their own writing, they were all enthusiastic racists and bigots, and all believed in eugenics, the “science” of racial breeding. Nellie McClung herself called for the forced sterilization of the “mentally feeble”, criminals and even, on some occasions, immigrants of the less desirable sort. They all believed in restricting immigration to the white races, particularly the northern Europeans. Reading a little further, I found this interest in eugenics and racial cleansing was popular throughout the prairie populist movements. JS Woodsworth, founder of the CCF, was a believer. Tommy Douglas, sainted father of the NDP, wrote his thesis on forced sterilization. It appears the left wing appetite for social engineering runs deep.
In any event, a memo was passed up the chain to the Mint and was ignored. Despite this, they proceeded with the Famous Five. It lasted from 2004 until 2012, but if they’d asked me, I would have said let’s go back to the 1986 Birds of Canada series. No one can complain a Snow Owl is politically incorrect.