An Act of Awareness: Who Will Be Featured On Canada's Next $5 Bill?
This past November, history was made when Canada welcomed the first non-Prime Minister, non-Royal Family figure to the national currency. Viola Desmond, a figure known as the ‘Canadian Rosa Parks’ because of her refusal to give up a seat in a Nova Scotian movie theatre, took Sir John A. Macdonald’s spot on the $10 bill. Shortly after, the Canadian Federal Government announced that Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie, the 8th and 10th Prime Ministers respectively, would be replaced in the next series of bank notes.
The $50 and $100 bills, currently held by Sir Borden and William Mackenzie, will soon feature 1st and 7th Prime Ministers, Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who were previously on the $10 and $5 bills. Queen Elizabeth II would retain her place on the $20 bill and Desmond would appear again on the $10 bill. This leaves the question as to who would earn the permanent place on Canada’s 3rd most circulated bill.
In 2013, well before Desmond was decided upon, historian Merna Forster began a campaign to feature a non-royal woman on Canadian currency. Her petition received 73,000 signatures and she wrote a letter arguing her case to every sitting Member of Parliament. Forster kept this up for three years after which the Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau, announced that “an iconic Canadian woman [would] be featured on the first bank note its next series.”
Canadians could send in nominations so long as they followed certain criteria; they had to be a Canadian by birth, have demonstrated outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field, and was of benefit to Canada and its citizens. The nominee would also have to be non-fictional and have been deceased for at least 25 years. After months of deliberation, Viola Desmond was decided upon.
If the Government of Canada held another poll for the $5 bill, there lies the question of if the person depicted would follow this socially just trend. If so, which social group would be given the attention that appearing on a bill would raise.
One of the most well-established movements in Canada currently is the LGBT acceptance movement which was of topic during June, or Pride Month. While there have been various collectable coins minted concerning the cause, the awareness raised by permanent representation on a circulated bill would be monumental.
One of, if not the best option for an LGBT-aware bill would be Jim Egan, a Canadian LGBT rights activist who began his work in the 50s. Egan knew he was homosexual at a young age, but was a young man travelling the world in the Navy before he experienced homosexual culture while in Europe. Though he dropped out of school to join the Navy, Egan educated himself in the world of science by reading any book available to him.
In 1949, Egan began writing letters to local papers, including the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, protesting numerous articles concerning homosexuals. The articles would almost always feature a salacious headline to mislead readers, and would be based upon false information about the LGBT community. Overall, the articles would lead to a greater stigma against homosexuality. Egan also tried to sell his own articles to these papers, hoping to spread truth about homosexuality. Egan’s letters and articles, though never published, were sent in with a pseudonym as homosexuality was still a crime in Canada until 1969. Egan eventually started writing to American publications as well, refuting claims across all of North America.
By 1953, Jim Egan was corresponding with multiple gay rights groups in America including the Society for Human Rights in Chicago and the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles. This networking eventually led to Egan’s work being published in Toronto’s True News Times (TNT), and eventually Justice Weekly, where he combatted the ‘conspiracy of silence’ as he would later outline in his autobiography. This made history as the first long form journalism published in a gay publication. Egan eventually convinced Justice Weekly publisher Philip Daniels to reprint the articles in other publications across America, again where it was illegal to be a homosexual.
Following a brief lull in his career, Egan aided journalist Sidney Katz with her two part series, “The Homosexual Next Door: A Sober Appraisal of a New Social Phenomenon”. Katz’ work was later published in Maclean’s magazine and became known as the one of the first large-scale works to be published in a mainstream Canadian magazine with a generally positive view of homosexuality. This placed strain on Egan’s relationship with his partner, Jack Nesbit, who preferred a more private lifestyle, and the couple soon moved to Vancouver to start a new life. While not outwardly involved in LGBT activism in Vancouver, the couple would later co-found the Comox Valley branch of the Island Gay Society, and Egan would serve as the president of the North Island AIDS coalition in 1994.
Egan found his place in history when he applied for the Spousal Allowance Benefit for his partner, Nesbit, in 1987. Though the two could have claimed separate old age pensions, they chose to have a single pension with a benefit as it would stand as an accomplishment for same-sex couples. The government denied Egan’s application, resulting in Egan taking legal action which eventually reached the Supreme Court of Canada. The monumental case found that sexual orientation was protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and as such could not be discriminated against. That being said, Egan’s case was ultimately denied as the pension benefit was designed to aid a partner who had spent much of their life keeping a house and raising children, without the chance to earn a pension of their own.
Another group to consider for the $5 bill are the First Nations people of Canada, who did more than just benefit Canada – they helped create it. Though many Indigenous figures helped establish the nation of Canada, either by helping European settlers or by participating in integral events, Senator Murray Sinclair may be the most fit to appear on a permanent bill.
Senator Sinclair was a bright child, skipping grades 3 and 7 while in elementary school and earneing valedictorian and athlete of the year in his final year of high school. Sadly, Sinclair had only been in the University of Manitoba for two years before he had to drop out to care for his sick grandmother. During this time out of school, he began working at the Selkirk Friendship Centre, a cultural acclimation Centre for Indigenous People much like a community centre. Sinclair also worked towards, and attained, the status of regional vice president for the Manitoba Métis Federation.
In 1973, three years after he dropped out of University, Sinclair was invited to be the personal assistant of Manitoba’s attorney general of the time, Howard Pawley. This experience motivated Sinclair to enroll in the University of Manitoba’s law school in 1976, from which he graduated three years later. Sinclair soon became well known for his passion for helping Indigenous people against discrimination, and turned down the offer to become a judge twice in order to provide legal services to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, the Manitoba Métis Federation, and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
In 1988, Sinclair finally accepted the offer to become a judge, making him the first Indigenous judge in the Provincial Court of Manitoba and the second Indigenous judge in all of Canada. He was also invited to the newly formed Aboriginal Justice Inquiry by his old boss, Howard Pawley. During this time he oversaw multiple cases involving Indigenous citizens, influencing the 1991 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry report highlighting racism within Manitoba’s justice system. This report alone was seen as a turning point for Indigenous Rights in Canada.
Possibly the most important contribution Senator Sinclair made to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada was his role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, is a group dedicated to making reparations and raising awareness about Canada’s historic abuse of the Indigenous population. Residential Schools are infamous for the systematic removal, or ‘cultural genocide’ as Sinclair termed it, of the Indigenous faith and culture. Canadian history also highlights compulsory sterilization of many Indigenous citizens, an issue that only began receiving popular recognition in 2009.
After initially turning down the offer due to fear of emotional exhaustion, as both his parents endured Residential Schools, Sinclair joined the Commission in 2009. By 2015, over 7000 previous students had testified about the abuse they experienced in the schools. The TRC published a six-volume report in 2015 outlining their findings.
The only issue with either Jim Egan or Senator Sinclair appearing on the $5 bill could be one of the guidelines present when Viola Desmond was selected; the subject must have been deceased for 25 years. This stipulation is similar to American currency which cannot feature a living permanent figure. Senator Sinclair is alive and well, and though Jim Egan has passed, it was just under 20 years ago in 2000. If this rule extends to the selection of the $5 bill figure as well, neither individual can be used.
The idea of honouring the Indigenous population still has a figure, though. Louis Riel, a controversial Canadian figure, was only 23 when Canada became a country in 1867. Riel is considered to be one of the founders of the province of Manitoba and was a strong political leader for the Métis nation, of which he was a part of.
When Canada first became a country, it only consisted of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The rest of the land that eventually became the provinces and territories was known as Rupert’s Land, and was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Soon after Canadian Confederation, though, the Canadian government began the process to buy Rupert’s Land. At the time, Ontario consisted primarily of Anglo-Protestant settlers from whom the Métis feared religious prosecution, and the possibility of them moving westward led to the formation of the Métis National Committee. Riel, a bright young man who had studied and excelled in seminary school, was elected secretary and, eventually, president. With Riel, the Métis National Committee eventually unified with their own government as the province of Assiniboia.
Riel’s controversial status began following confrontation with a group of armed Canadians looking to recruit a group of Scottish settlers to help dismantle Riel’s government. Alarmed, the Métis gathered the armed Canadians at nearby Upper Fort Gary and enacted a martial court which sentenced a young man, Thomas Scott, to death. Scott was a member of the Orange Order of Canada, a popular religious political group from Ontario, and as such his death enraged much of his home province.
Despite this, the province of Assiniboia became a part of Canada as the province of Manitoba with the Manitoba Act of 1870. To reassure the outraged Ontarians, the government sent a group of soldiers to Riel’s home of Red River. Manitoba had not agreed to this military presence, though, and Riel soon discovered that their intent was to execute Riel for the murder of Thomas Scott. Riel fled to the American state of Montana for safety, but was soon encouraged by friends and family to return to Canada and join the political system. Though Riel was successful in getting elected, he was expelled from the House of Commons the two times he entered by the Orange leader, Mackenzie Bowell.
Riel was then exiled to America for a short time, but returned to Saskatchewan in 1884 to help the Batoche Métis farmers defend their legal rights to their farms and of access to fair trade. Though Riel drafted a petition and gained support, the government did not officially accept the movement. The Batoche Métis reacted by taking up arms with the intention of forcing the government to acknowledge the rights of the western Métis. The forces created a government of their own, of which Riel was president, and took over a parish in Batoche, demanding for the presiding HBC to submit to their rule.
The Canadian government reacted by sending military forces to Batoche and, after two months of fighting, was victorious in reclaiming control of the area. Riel was arrested on charges of high treason but was unable to afford legal counsel of his own. The province of Quebec, who idolized Riel for his actions and ideals, provided legal counsel for Riel but planned to defend him on grounds of insanity. Riel contested this as it would depreciate his work for the rights of the Métis, and as such ended the trial with a speech that defended the rights of the Métis while confirming his sanity. Riel was sentenced to hang on November 16th, 1885, leaving behind the legacy of being a champion for Indigenous rights.
Finally, one of the most called-for Canadians to appear permanently on Canadian currency is Terry Fox, the man immortalized in Canada’s yearly ‘Terry Fox Run’. Fox is seen by all of Canada as a modern hero who dedicated his life to generating support for those suffering from cancer.
Born on July 28th 1958, Fox was described as being determined and athletic even as a child. Through his elementary school and high school years in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Fox participated in almost every sport available to him, including cross-country running and basketball. At 18, though, Fox developed a pain in his knee that grew so excruciating that his family doctor recommended him to an orthopedic surgeon. Following a series of x-rays and a bone scan, the orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Michael Piper, diagnosed Fox with osteogenic sarcoma, a type of bone cancer. On March 9th, 1977, Fox’s right leg was amputated 15cm above his knee.
During his time in chemotherapy Fox developed a strong compassion for the other cancer patients. Though he was recovering well, he would often see others who were struggling and dying and feel the need to help them. Fox had read of a marathon runner, Dick Traum, who ran the New York City Marathon despite being an amputee himself, giving Fox the idea to run a marathon himself. Fox began training and in a few months completed a 27km marathon in British Columbia with his brother, Darrell, and friend, Doug Alward.
Fox was determined to do more, though, and on April 12th, 1980, he embarked on his Marathon of Hope across Canada with the goal of raising $24.52 million for cancer research, or $1 for every Canadian. He began by dipping his prosthetic leg in the Atlantic Ocean near St. John’s, Newfoundland, and then embarked on his journey west. He averaged 42km a day, supported by Alward who followed in a van, and later his brother, Darrell. Though his marathon had little attention when he began, Fox achieved stardom by the time he entered Ontario. Fox was greeted by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, NHL stars Bobby Orr and Darryl Sittler, and received a police escort along his path through the province.
Fox made it just outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario, when he had to stop due to chest pains. After running for 143 days and covering 5373km, Fox’s Marathon of Hope came to an end when he was informed that cancer had been found in his lungs. Despite his determination to return and continue the marathon, Terry Fox passed away on June 28th, 1981.
Terry Fox has since been honoured with multiple schools, streets, and parks being named after him, among other places. His story is taught in schools across Canada around mid-September when the National Terry Fox Run is held. He is a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and a companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honour among the Canadian Honours System.
Regardless of who is given the permanent spot on the next $5 bill, the most important pursuit is summed up by Yusra Khogali, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto. While it is a great honour to appear on a nation’s currency, the reality is “that [it doesn’t] mean anything unless politics is also affected”. Whatever cause is highlighted through depicting a figure on the $5 bill, the most important thing is that this attention continues to generate support for the cause. As both LGBT and Indigenous rights deserve awareness, and courage and determination to help others is important to Canada as a whole, whomever appears on the next $5 bill is going to be a hard decision to answer.