A ‘Vimy’ for your thoughts?

Canada’s $20 commemorates 1917 battle

<p>Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney speaks about the new polymer $20 note at the War Museum in Ottawa, Wednesday Nov 7, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld</p>

Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney speaks about the new polymer $20 note at the War Museum in Ottawa, Wednesday Nov 7, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Jeremy Diamond wants to change the way you talk about money, one $20 bill at a time. For him, it’s an investment in the future that draws on the past.

“I don’t think people really pay attention to what’s on the money,” he says, listing the various prime ministers on Canadian currency.

The Vimy Foundation lobbied the Bank of Canada to commemorate the 1917 battle of Vimy Ridge on the new polymer $20 bill. As the charity’s campaign manager, Diamond is now trying to get Canadians to call the bill a “Vimy” — something easier said than done.

“It’s always easier to introduce new words when it’s for a totally new thing,” says Molly Babel, a linguistics professor at the University of British Columbia. Canada’s $1 coin may have planned to feature two people canoeing, but when those dies were lost in transit, the Bank of Canada changed the design to a loon. The loonie then became part of everyday speech.

“The fact that Canada already has nicknames for its currency—like loonies and toonies—it seems like that creates an environment where calling something ‘Vimy’ would catch on,” Babel says.  The campaign aimed at getting people to donate “a Vimy for Vimy” is not lacking in star power with endorsements from Rick Mercer, Paul Gross and Don Cherry.

Even Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of Canada is on board.

“The Bank of Canada issues the notes, but we can’t tell people what to call them,” Carney said. “I would say, though, calling the $20 a ‘Vimy’ has a nice ring to it.”

Though plans have yet to be finalized, Diamond hopes a two-storey, 20,000-square-foot education centre—featuring lecture theatres and display spaces—will be built right next to the monument at Vimy Ridge in France.  “In terms of walking in the footsteps of history connection, it’s right there,” he says. The Foundation wants to raise $20 million to build the centre, and the government has already chipped in the first $5 million.

Despite the foundation’s efforts, there are skeptics. “It is not clear how many of these people support the bid to force a nickname onto our $20 bill,” Matthew Coutts wrote for Yahoo Canada. “There is a well-known adage that goes like this: ‘You can’t choose your own nickname.’”

When the two-dollar coin came into circulation in 1996, the former MP from the Northwest Territories, Jack Anawak, made a plea in Parliament to use the new coin name as an educational opportunity.

“The word ‘nanuq’ … in English means polar bear; majestic, strong, powerful and mysterious, the creature which now graces our two dollar coin,” he said in Inuktitut to his colleagues in the House of Commons. “I suggest we adopt the name ‘nanuq’ for our two-dollar coin in honour of Inuktitut, one of the original languages of this country, and the name of a truly northern Canadian animal.” Instead, the word “toonie” earned public acceptance—a combination of “two” and “loonie.”

Like the “nanuq” the quest to have Canadians withdrawing “Vimys” would be an uphill battle. However, any recognition the Vimy Foundation receives in its attempt—successful or unsuccessful—could be a teachable moment for those curious about Canada’s achievements in the First World War.

Molly Babel moved to Vancouver four years ago from Minnesota with little knowledge of Canadian history. Upon hearing about the “Vimy,” she started to research. “I learned a little about Canadian history,” she says.

Four Canadian divisions with men representing all regions fought at Vimy Ridge against German forces. During the four-day battle, 3,598 Canadians died.  “In those few minutes,” Brigadier-General A.E. Ross famously declared after the war, “I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

Almost a century later what happened at Vimy is not forgotten, but the word is coming into public discourse in new ways.

Last weekend at a bar with friends, Babel says the new word for a $20 bill was contagious, though likely not a permanent part of their daily vocabulary. “We were happy to use it for the evening,” she says. “I don’t think anyone paid with a Vimy, but certainly we were making bets to each other in the form of Vimys.”