“Canada’s banknotes — one of our national symbols — have been fixated on monarchs and prime ministers for long enough.
Civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond is the first, and so far only, Canadian to break that mould.”
When we think about our money, the Toronto Star editorial concerning who should be depicted on our money is right ‘on the money’. For too long, we have restricted our modern bank notes and coinage to just two species: Prime Ministers and British royalty. The Star is right that this should change in a more wholesale way.
Viola Desmond is just the first Canadian who was neither a PM nor a member of British Royalty to appear on a regular issue of our modern paper money. There have been many examples of commemorative coins and bills to depict others. For example, in the leadup to the Desmond ‘tenner’, a commemorative $10 dollar bill depicted Agnes McPhail, George-Etienne Cartier and James Gladstone.
Now there’s an excellent trivia question if there ever was one.
But if you take a good look at our money today, there is a lot going on. Some of it is overt and some of it subliminal.
For example, why do we have Mackenzie King on the fifty and Sir Robert Borden on the hundred? Both have been on these bills since 1975 and were preceded by British Royalty starting with the estimable Duke of Gloucester who first graced both denominations in 1935.
And both King and Borden were long serving PM’s and perhaps that’s the reason for their longevity on our two largest denomination bills.
But I don’t think so.
I think the reason is more subtle as they are the only two men to have been prime minister during World War I and World War II. Neither is depicted simply because they hail from yesteryear nor do they remain because few have personal memories of either to stir up potential controversy. In other words, there is something deeply ingrained in all of us concerning wartime leaders that somehow makes it appropriate that they be immortalized on our lucre.
The same is true in the USA. George Washington, who led the American revolutionary forces to victory, graces the $1.00 bill and Lincoln who led during the Civil War, is on the Five. Andrew Jackson, who is on their $20 bill, a war hero from the War of 1812 and also a President, has the same basic pedigree as Ulysses Grant who is on the $50 bill (both a war hero and President).
Get the picture? War service gets you on the money. And you stay there.
But let’s turn away from prime ministers and presidents and think a bit about the monarchy and their role on our coinage and paper money.
In the case of our present Monarch, Queen Elizabeth, she has graced the obverse of every single piece of legal coinage since 1953 – on the penny, the Nickle, the dime, the quarter, the 50 cent piece, silver dollars, loonies, twonies and a vast array of commemorative pieces. And her father ‘Bertie’ – King George VI, George V, King Edward VII and Victoria before him have been depicted on the obverse of all our coinage since Confederation (and before).
The Royals are obviously good value for the money (so to speak) as they have obviated the need for a number of expensive Royal Commissions and Commissions of Inquiry for more than one and a half centuries.
But that’s all about to change.
I just find it unimaginable that we will decide to put Prince Charles on the obverse of our coinage once the Queen passes – should he not predecease her.
It’s nothing to do with whether he is worthy or whether we are unhappy with his family life. After all, we were perfectly ready to put King Edward VIII on all our money in 1936 on the passing of George V.
It’s just that – and I don’t know how to put it other than this – that times have changed.
Charles’ extramarital fling with Camilla and their subsequent marriage was much less scandalous than King Edward’s affair with Mrs. Simpson and their eventual nuptials.
But changing times has meant that the Royals just don’t have the same hold on us.
And it means we are going to have to scramble – whether it be the twonie or the twenty – to decide who we are going to ‘put on the money’.
There will be many suggestions regardless of whether we have a Commission of Inquiry. How about Hockey heroes or Canadian golf greats? How about the group of seven or living greats such as soccer hero Christine Sinclair? We have lots of worthies in the wings to consider.
Others have said we should skip a generation to Prince Charles’ first son William who is first in line to the throne after Charles. But we should not do that because Charlie is too old. We have to remember that King Edward VII was almost 60 when he ascended to the throne and had also previously held the position of Prince of Wales like Charlie. And he only lasted as King for nine years.
So let’s not jump too quickly to change the coinage or the twenty until we are certain of what’s going to happen.
But this leads me to a novel idea.
On the passage of the Queen, let’s just keep her on the money. After all, quick decision- making when breaking tradition is not something Canadians are all that good at. I won’t even start a list.
In addition, quick decisions to make changes to our money did not work well in the past. The debacle with King Edward VIII meant that he never did grace our money and King George V did not make the obverse of our coinage and the face of our bills until 1937.
And when ‘Bertie’ lost his title of Emperor of India, we quickly added a tiny maple leaf after the year 1947 to denote that 1947 coinage was being used in 1948 until we could scrub the emperor designation off the back of our coins and issue new 1948 coins near the end of the year.* We were in that much of a hurry to have his accurate title on our money.
And no – I didn’t just make this story up – it actually happened.
At some point in the future, just like the Scarborough subway, things will become clear enough for us to forge ahead in a new direction. Whether hockey players or artists; golfers or statesmen; things will eventually come into focus.
Money is important and we need to treat it with all the gravitas it deserves.
Let’s not rush into things.
God Save the Queen!
* The 1947 Canadian coinage noted that George VI was ‘by the grace of God, the King and emperor of India’ while the 1948 coinage simply says that George VI was ‘by the grace of God, the king’.