Banknotables: a holiday conversation starter

If the Famous Five don’t belong on the $50 bill, who does?

Hilarity! Both of the metropolitan broadsheets in Alberta are throwing a tantrum about the Mint’s plans to dump the Famous Five feminists of the 1920s from the $50 bill and replace them with a picture of an icebreaker. Like most pundits who take a thwack at the occasional issue of personages and emblems on our currency, the authors of these editorials act like they have never been east of Flin Flon.

I ask you to sincerely disregard the epic loathsomeness of the Famous Five—that quintet of unsmiling prohibitionists, pacifists, and white supremacists, at least three of whom bear direct personal responsibility for a four-decade regime of sexual sterilization of the “unfit” in Alberta. Leave aside, too, the fact that women would obviously have been admitted to the Senate soon enough if there had never been a Persons Case. No, I ask you merely to look at the people other countries put on their paper currency. With the exception of Australia, which shares our fetish for early female politicians utterly unknown elsewhere, you’ll find they mostly like to put world-historical figures on there. Japan honours Noguchi, who discovered the syphilis spirochete. England honours Darwin and Adam Smith. Sweden remembers Linnaeus and Jenny Lind. New Zealand commemorates Edmund Hillary and Ernest Rutherford.

In short, they tend to favour the kind of hero whose name has some enduring significance for all mankind. As an answer to this resounding dialogue of peoples, the Edmonton Journal asks “Why not honour an Inuk such as Natkusiak, the man who was the principal guide for two major Canadian Arctic expeditions in 1908-12 and 1913-18?” The author of that sentence has managed to embarrass his newspaper, condescend to the Inuit, and satirize his country, all with a mere flourish of 25 words. Maybe we should put him on a banknote!

The problem Canada may have, though I hesitate to mention it, is a lack of deserving international notables of the first rank. Almost a decade ago I asked my small blog audience “Who are the Canadians whose names will still be part of the history of civilization 250 years from now?” This is a very rigorous standard, and while one can’t insist on the 250-year figure, it does concentrate the mind: we ought to search for names that transcend fashions, even very long-running ones like sports and games, and particular media. I think it would be humiliating for us to demand a quarter-share of the fame of Rutherford or Alexander Graham Bell or John Grierson, or perhaps even James Naismith.

I proposed Glenn Gould and Marshall McLuhan as the strongest really Canadian candidates, and in ten years I haven’t heard a name I am quite willing to put at the same level. The two are not household names anywhere, but their standing is permanent and globally recognized. Emphasis on the “and”. McLuhan founded an academic discipline and modelled an unique way of thinking; his silliness, indecipherability, and contradictoriness were part of his method. (He is much like Edmund Hillary; a “first” who was much followed to a new place, and who can never be dislodged from that distinction.) Gould was not just a once-a-century interpreter of art that has unquestioned millennial significance, but was a pretty profound media theorist and philosopher in his own right. The best outside suggestion I got was Lucy Maud Montgomery, who is close to the right level; literary fame is mysterious and transient, but she has 100 years of uninterrupted international stardom. Readers are invited to suggest other answers to the question.