Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: Canada Whitewashes the New $100 Bill

For this month’s Canadian news, I bring you a not-so-healthy dose of ridiculousness served with a side of racism guaranteed to leave a bad taste in your mouth. The item in question is not so much a part of the menu as it’s used to purchase items on it. That’s right, I’m talking ’bout dolla dolla bills, dough, green, moolah, big bucks; or, to exchange my street cred for nerd credibility, I’m specifically referencing Canada’s new plastic, waterproof and apparently fraud-proof banknotes. Last week it was revealed that the Bank of Canada changed the appearance of a female scientist depicted on the $100 banknote after focus groups complained that she looked too Asian. To better represent Canada, she has been replaced by a Caucasian woman the Bank describes as having a “neutral ethnicity.” She may look like a cute, gay nerd; but the message the Bank of Canada is sending is that “neutral” is white and that any other race must be a deviation from the norm.

Nerdy Lesbian Money

It wouldn’t be the first time that focus groups, used by the Bank of Canada to spot “potential controversies,” have seen unintended imagery on banknotes. In 2011, a Vancouver focus group thought the DNA strand the new $100 bill looked like a sex toy. Another group believed it saw a skull and cross bones in the portholes of a ship on the new $50 note. Multiple focus groups thought that the see-through window of the polymer bill resembled the curves of a naked woman. They also saw Pagan symbols on the face of the Peace Tower clock.

Pagan symbols and a sexy silhouette

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that we Canadians are a strange and horny bunch whom the Bank of Canada actually takes seriously. Adhering to the recommendations of the focus groups, the Bank has made some changes to the new currency. But there’s a world of difference between finding a bill too sexual (or creepy or magical) and finding it too Asian; the former is simply laughable while the latter is racist.

When the $100 bill made the news last year, there was no discussion of race or ethnicity. Instead, the focus was on gender. Ms. Magazine congratulated Canada on representing a female scientist on its money. As we’re all too aware, the maths and sciences are still male-dominated fields and the achievements of women in science are often downplayed. A depiction of a woman peering into a microscope was right on the feminist money, so to speak. Positioned next to a vial of insulin, she not only represents the women throughout history who’ve worked behind the scenes of the country’s important scientific breakthroughs, but she also gives national visibility to female scientists.

At a glance, it may seem like women are well represented on Canada’s money. After all, Queen Elizabeth stares at you with a hint of a smile from the back of every coin and twenty dollar bill; but the Queen doesn’t exactly represent your average, every day woman. Little girls can’t hope to become queen when they grow up. They can, however, aspire to be scientists or important feminist activists like the Famous Five who, up until recently, were depicted on our $50 bill. Which is why I was less than impressed when I found out that the picture of the Five on the $50 bill will not make it onto the new polymer version. Instead, the group of feminists who fought for women’s right to vote and be considered “persons” under the law will be replaced by an Arctic research boat, the CCGS Amundsen. The ship is a retrofit of the CCGS Sir John Franklin, a research vessel named after a British colonial explorer for whom I have as much fondness as he had for the French and the Inuit (i.e. not very much.)

In fairness, the reverse side of the twenty-dollar bill does pay homage to the culture of British Columbia’s Aboriginal population and features a great quote from female Quebecois writer Gabrielle Roy: “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?” The five dollar bill has a winter-y looking scene of gender-neutral children playing hockey on a pond. In the bottom left-hand corner there’s a cute little picture of a kid tobogganing who, it’s got to be said, is at least as “ethnic” as the supposedly Asian scientist. A child tobogganing doesn’t make much of a statement, whereas a woman of colour staring into a microscope next to a vial of insulin does. It recognises the important contributions that women and minorities have made in this country. And maybe that’s what makes this image so threatening; some would rather forget that women of colour are important Canadian citizens who are worthy of recognition.

When describing the original bill, a man in a Fredericton Focus Group said, “The person on it appears to be of Asian descent which doesn’t represent Canada. It is fairly ugly.” A few respondents even said that the yellow-brown colour of the bill “racialized” the banknote.

Others who weren’t as blatantly racist pointed out that other minorities should be represented as well and that the image of the Asian scientist perpetuated stereotypes of Asians as model minorities. Yet replacing the Asian woman for a Caucasian one is only a step backwards. The best way to end stereotyping is with more representation, not less.  Imagine how great it would’ve been if the Bank had taken the request for multiculturalism seriously and had included on the bill a picture of people from various ethnicities engaged in important work or even doing something fun and Canadian like eating maple syrup. But even simply keeping the image of the Asian woman would’ve set a precedent and left room for the possibility of depicting more ethnicities in the future, which in turn would help to fight stereotypes.

From what I’ve read, Asian-Canadians, the very people the focus groups were so terribly afraid of stereotyping, aren’t offended by the Asian scientist. In response to the whitewashing of the scientist, Victor Wong, the national executive director of the Chinese Canadian national council accused the Bank of, ” erasing all of us.” It’s not the first time that Asian-Canadians have been erased. I don’t remember learning about the internment of Japanese Canadians in my elementary school Social Studies classes. The Chinese workers who were paid next to nothing and often died building the Canadian Pacific Railway show another black hole in our history. But as time marches forward, it’s going to get increasingly difficult to ignore Asian-Canadians. Canada, after all, is a multicultural country. It’s estimated that by 2030, 30.6% of the population will be a visible minority. I wonder if the discomfort that stems from seeing an Asian woman on national currency stems from fear that Asians will, to put it in racist terms, take over. But such a concern implies that Canada has always been and should remain white, which simply isn’t true and ignores our colonial history.

Mu-Qing Huang, a Chinese Canadian biology student at the University of Toronto puts it well: “If Canada is truly multicultural and thinks that all cultural groups are equal, then any visible minority should be good enough to represent a country, including (someone with) Asian features.”

Yesterday the Bank of Canada took the unusual step of issuing a public apology for the way it has handled the $100 bill controversy. Mark Carney, the central bank governor, said the bank will be revisiting their decision.

In the development of our $100 bank note, efforts by the bank-note designers to avoid depicting a specific individual resulted in an image that appears to represent only one ethnic group. That was not the bank’s intention and I apologize to those who were offended. The bank’s handling of this issue did not meet the standards Canadians justifiably expect of us. We will be reviewing our design process in light of these events. Our bank notes belong to all Canadians, and the work we do at the bank is for all Canadians.

The apology does not excuse the whitewashing of the scientist. After all, replacing an Asian woman with a white one doesn’t solve the problem of representing “only one ethnic group.” But I’m hoping that “reviewing the design process” and recognizing that “bank notes belong to all Canadians” means that the Bank of Canada will make an effort to ensure that Canada’s bills are truly multicultural and truly show all Canadians including visual minorities.

Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

Malaika has written 84 articles for us.

37 Comments

      • This.

        I’m a bank teller at a big green Canadian bank, and after all the scrutinizing I do of bills, I was never once trained to look at it hard enough to judge the ethnic features of the people who appear on it. It was just never important.

        I think the “focus group” missed the point. I’m pretty sure everyone looks at that picture and immediately thinks “female scientist”, not “Asian”. And even if they did think “Asian” first, so what?

        We as Canadians so often brag about being better than our neighbours to the south in terms of being a “mosaic” instead of a “melting pot”. Sometimes I wonder.

  1. Canadian money is something that I previously knew absolutely nothing about, but this was super interesting. I feel so informed now. Also, what kind of moron thinks the double helix looks like a sex toy?

    I was excited to see colored ink on our new American money, but it all features dead white guys… I kinda like the Canadian life feel of kids playing hockey on the money (and the colors! Never understood why money has to be boring.)

    • Yeah I can’t even kinda sorta see the double helix sex toy thing.

      Maybe there just shouldn’t be focus groups for currency. We don’t have focus groups for all kinds of really important things the government makes decisions on, why are we wasting time pretending to see sex where there isn’t and erasing possible diversity when we claim to be a multicultural country?

  2. “even doing something fun and Canadian like eating maple syrup”
    Cracked me up. I’m just visualising notes with people doing really bizarre every day things now.
    I need to go check out Australia’s representation on our money now. Hmmm.

        • We had Pride last week, we went to the “parade” (I use the term losely) and that whole afternoon sucked ass. I don’t know if you heard what happened with the Pride committee here but I am super disapointed about everything and clearly, I won’t be contributing anymore $$$ to that bs. I have a lot of rage about that. I haven’t gone out in SJ for at least 5 years, since I am a responsible adult now and all that jazz. Last time our friend’s car broke down and some peeps had to cab it all the way back to Freddy. And i had to drive them back the next day to get their car back…good times, good times.

  3. Focus groups are kind of fucked because the people know they’re ‘supposed’ to find something ‘wrong’ with whatever it is they’re being asked to look at. I think that’s where some of the ridiculous sex toy/penises nonsense comes from. IF I DON’T CLAIM I SEE A PENIS I HAVE FAILED AS A FOCUS GROUP MEMBER.

    I hope they work that stuff out and quick. Weird, but I don’t think having a person of color on your money should be in the same category as having penis shaped things on your money.

  4. At work we check these by looking for all the little security things and then at the end we give them a little tug to see if they tear (which is supposed to be impossible) but my coworker tore one almost in half yesterday!! So they either aren’t so fraud proof or aren’t so tear proof. I don’t know which is more surprising!

  5. It feels like Canada is falling backwards every day. I remember growing up that the dominant message in school was “Canada is proud of its multiculturalism” and in textbooks there were kids and people of all ethnicities coming together, working together.

    What the hell has happened? Maybe the bubble around me finally popped and the racist generation before me has a louder voice I didn’t notice before. Or maybe attitudes in Canada are shifting backwards. I can’t help but think it has something to do with our Conservative Prime Minister…

  6. I don’t even get this. Why would you try to prevent what wouldn’t be controversial at all by creating a definitely huge controversy and then justify your explanation with even more controversy? (Seriously? White = Neutral race?)

  7. I’m Asian. I recognize the efforts… Martha Washington’s face may worth more than a $1 but it would be nice to see it in use. Majority versus minority can be a problem in representation… Maybe a face with an ethnic mashup…

  8. Thanks for another super article Malaika!

    There’s more bank notes bs happening with the focus groups going on for the new $20 bills…

    “A new $20 bill set to be released by the Bank of Canada this November is raising eyebrows after it was announced that focus group participants saw “naked women” and New York’s Twin Towers in the design.”

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/yourcommunity/2012/05/is-canadas-new-20-bill-too-pornographic.html

    I don’t know about you guys, but I really don’t mind naked ladies on my money. No problem there AT ALL. Erasing the Asian out of that scientist wasn’t exactly Canadian in my views though. I just blame it on Harper, like everything else!

  9. Better representation of Canada by whitewashing the people featured on our bank notes? Uh, have these people SEEN how huge our Asian population is? If the Bank of Canada wants its money to be representative of the country, they should get rid of all of the white people on our bills!

    I just can’t wrap my head around this. I thought that Canada prided itself on the fact that it is a multicultural, ethnically diverse country, and I’ve always loved that. So the answer is to put only white people on our money to represent this, what?

    • Again, I think the problem is who is being selected for a focus group. Watch it be some white church-going lot! I’m pretty sure whiteness is comforting to people who are afraid of any differences, and are white themselves. It’s sad, especially since the government is playing into their hands. Like if the American government was playing deference to the Tea Party in all aspects.

      • You’d be surprised at how many bigoted assholes are actually well-educated people.

        A few years ago, I went with my dad to visit some clients of his in order to act as a witness for their will signing. Older couple, immigrants from Macedonia. They live in a HUGE house with their daughter and teenage grandson.

        I was sitting down with them in their living room, when they (the couple and their daughter, a TEACHER of all things!) started talking about Canada’s demographics. Eventually they got off on a tangent about how people from Asia don’t belong in Canada, blah blah blah, how mean they are, how awful. And I’m sitting there, not knowing what to say. They saw how uncomfortable I was, and they said,

        “You know honey, you may look at us and think we’re intolerant and narrow-minded, but they don’t like us, either!”

        And I thought, “Well, clearly they don’t. I don’t like you either because you’re a bunch of ignorant assholes!”

        It just made me so mad. And then they tried to pimp me out to their grandson (I was 23 at the time, he was 17-18, I think).

  10. Is it just me, or do these focus groups seem obscenely stupid? I think groups of educated people should form the focus groups, maybe incorporating different groups with varying ages to see if age accounts for any of the ignorance. I really can’t see an educated class of people being so willfully moronic and close-minded. Pagan symbols, sex toys?! The racism is just the icing on the reactionary-bigot cake. When you have visceral reactions to different religions and to ideas about sex, you’re probably also going to have a problem with race. Textbook stupidity.

  11. I think you misread the apology – it sounds to me like he was acknowledging that having a caucasian woman on the bill was “represent[ing] only one ethnic group.”

    I’m curious about the racial diversity of the focus groups…

  12. Focus groups really seems to bring out the most embarassingly ignorant parts of humanity. One should note that they’re generally composed of people willing and able to be paid very little to sit around a table in the middle of the day and talk about their feelings with strangers.

    This said, whichever focus group decided that our money should smell like maple candy has brought me a great deal of joy, so I can hardly condemn them on principle.

  13. Some food for thought, though: Asians are stereotypically nerdy. If they had left the Asian gal on the $100 bill as a scientist of sort, chances are we’d be talking about how Bank of Canada prejudiced is on how they view Asian-Canadians. Not that this ‘neutral’ ethnic gal is any better, mind you.

    That said, I seriously doubt that particular focus group was very diverse ethnically. I can’t imagine immigrants, especially those of Asian descent or any other visible minority, flocking to one of the most Eastern-most locales in Canada. Just too darn far to have family reunions.

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