Opinion: Let’s stop putting politicians on cash

The new $10 bill, unveiled on International Women’s Day this week, is awesome, for so many reasons. Its vertical design is an interesting novelty, for one. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights looks great on the back.

And then there’s the face on the front, Viola Desmond, looking dynamite. Her story is a barrier-breaking portrait of resolve in the face of injustice: challenging segregation by refusing to leave the whites-only section of a movie theatre, and suffering arrest and persecution because of it. She paid a price and helped change Canadian society by doing so, and now we get to thank her for it every time we pay a price – far too late, of course.

Add to that a series of other far-too-late welcome firsts her bill represents: she’s a woman who isn’t the monarch, she’s black, a civil-rights activist. For these reasons and others, the new 10-spot is good news.

But there’s another reason to celebrate, and to hope she’s a symbol of things to come. She’s not a politician.

For as long as this country has been minting money, we’ve been putting two kinds of people on the currency: monarchs and prime ministers. It gets to be like sitting through the same Grade 9 history lecture every time you open your wallet to pay for a coffee.

There’s so much more to Canadian culture and society than just politicians. We have artists, writers, scientists, musicians, business people, activists, athletes. People who have shaped Canadian culture. These are the people I’d recognize with memorial portraits via the thing we use to indicate value in our society: cash money.

In Canada, we have written all kinds of bureaucratic rules governing entertainment content to foster a national culture and shelf-crushing volumes of hand-wringing prose pondering the elusive Canadian identity. Why not recognize and celebrate those who have shaped Canadian culture – given us an idea of ourselves – by putting their faces on the bills we handle every day?

So, for example, I’d love to see Mordecai Richler on the $5, Austin Clarke on the quarter, Alice Munro on the nickel. Maestro Fresh Wes, who rapped about getting “bills of brown for my sound,” seems a natural for the $100 bill. Putting Terry Fox on the loonie is a gimme.

Dime-bag king of comedy Tommy Chong, meanwhile, may be a candidate for the 10-cent piece. What about for the toonie? I like the idea of Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The list of worthwhile candidates is long – so long. Would you prefer to be reminded of Marie-Philip Poulin’s multiple golden goals every time you spend $20? Or of Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue’s multiple gold medals?

How about Oscar Peterson for the $50? And Mary Pickford, star of the silver screen, seems natural for a silver dollar.

You run out of currency long before you run out of worthy candidates. John Candy, Scott Thompson, Gord Downie, Neil Young? Kim Catrall, Pamela Anderson, Trish Stratus?

Everyone who ever studied in a Canadian school will already wonder where Frederick Banting is, or Tom Longboat, or Roberta Bondar. Surely there’s a place on a coin somewhere for Alex Trebek, or k.d. lang, or the Littlest Hobo.

Luckily, the government mints new coins every year, and redesigns banknotes every decade or so. There are opportunities to switch it up, and to have new valuable bits of history we’d actually be interested in reliving and learning pass through our hands.

Politicians have had had their time in the bank vault. There’s so much else worth celebrating and recognizing. For a change. And on the change.

Edward Keenan is a syndicated columnist.

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