Light is Right Joe Campbell

As a child, I learned that bills and coins make a financial statement. They declare a cash value. As an adult, I learned that they also make a policy statement. They reveal a partisan position. Besides purchasing power, they represent political power. Money doesn’t talk. It cheers.

Less than a year after the Bank of Canada issued it, our first polymer bill sparked a political debate. The argument wasn’t about the change from paper money to plastic. It was about a change in appearance of the woman scientist depicted on the back of the $100 bill. When, as originally drafted, she prompted some critics to think she looked Asian, the bank cited a policy of ethnic neutrality and ordered her redrawn. But, as finally printed, she prompted others to think she looks Caucasian. I suspect that if the bank were to try again, she would prompt still others to think she looks African or Amerindian.

Ethnicity and race weren’t the only points of contention. The debate extended to culture, as some critics thought the original image stereotyped Asians as excelling in science. Little wonder that we Canadians feel locked in a paradox. In a nation that prides itself on becoming multi-racial and multicultural, we risk censure if we draw attention to race or culture.

Try as I may, I can’t imagine how to depict humans as racially neutral. Composites won’t do. They may prevent critics from recognizing individuals, but not racial features. Identity critics can see race and racism in all things human. Maybe our bills and coins should depict robots. As far as I can tell, they are neither ethnically nor racially diverse.

Nor are they sexually divided. Unless I missed it, no one has complained that the woman on the back of the $100 bill looks female. But don’t be surprised if someone does. Identity critics can also see sex and sexism in all things human.

Not just politically, but also aesthetically, robots would be an improvement over the monarchs and prime ministers depicted on our cash since we first produced it. They’re no more attractive on bills and coins than on stamps. But if we opt for robots, we should act soon. Otherwise someone might complain that the Queen looks female or, if her son succeeds her, that the King looks male.

The second polymer bank note to circulate, the $50 bill, is also controversial. The bill it succeeded depicted a Prime Minister on the front and six feminists on the back. The Prime Minister, who looks male, survived the transition from paper to plastic. The feminists, who look female, didn’t. They were replaced by an Arctic Icebreaker, which looks nautical.

Some critics complained about the ethnicity of the icebreaker, which is named after a Norwegian explorer. Others lamented the disappearance of the feminists. None that I know of protested the durability of the Prime Minister.

If recognition is the aim, the $20 bill is the one to appear on. More $20 bills are in circulation than all the others combined. As the twenty is the bill most often counterfeited, the images it carries circulate more widely still, albeit illegally. But, alas, the polymer version of this popular banknote has not escaped controversy. Although anti-monarchists have kept silent about the Queen pictured on the front, others have balked at the National Vimy Memorial depicted on the back.

To some eyes, its soaring pylons resemble the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. To others, its classically clad, topless sculptures, which look female, resemble soft-core pornography. Some have complained that the memorial, which looks military, replaced native artwork, which looks aboriginal. Others have lamented that the formerly Canadian maple leaf has come to look scandalously Scandinavian.

Besides the ubiquitous, and apparently iniquitous, maple leaf, our currency has depicted beavers, rabbits, bobcats, wolves, caribou, polar bears, loons, geese, owls, robins, mackerel, and poppies, among other non-human images. Although the animals look mammalian, the birds avian, the fish piscine and the plants vegetative, champions of species rights have been uncharacteristically accommodating.

Over the years, we have trimmed the currency significantly. Canada no longer makes $1,000, $500, $25 and $4 bills. Nor does it make the 25-cent shinplaster, a mini-bill that fascinated me when I was a mini-person. Although coins have replaced the $1 and $2 bills, we no longer have the silver “little” nickel, which also fascinated me when I was little.

Canada no longer makes cents, which is phonically and symbolically appropriate as, politically, we Canadians no longer make sense.