Q&A with Merna Forster who campaigned to get women on Canadian currency

Aviva West
Daily Brew

[Merna Forster/Heroines.ca]

For nearly three years, Victoria-based historian Merna Forster has been leading a quiet but growing movement to pressure the Bank of Canada to include a Canadian woman on our currency.

This week, she was able to declare victory as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced on International Women’s Day that “an iconic Canadian woman” would be featured in the design of new banknotes expected in 2018.

Forster, the author of two books and a website on historic Canadian women of note, launched a petition in July 2013 that called on the central bank to return the images of Canadian women to banknotes after they were removed during Mark Carney’s tenure as Bank of Canada governor. That petition, now closed, garnered more than 73,000 signatures and support from some of Canada’s best-known authors, artists and public figures.

Forster, who is the executive director of the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History Project at the University of Victoria, spoke with Yahoo Canada News about her campaign and what motivated her to take action.

Q: When did you first become engaged in women’s issues?

A: When I grew up I never really learned anything about women in Canadian history, and I really never thought a thing about it. I never noticed there was a problem. When I went to university it was the same thing. I was writing papers about Louis Riel and perfectly happy about doing that. And then after that, when I was working and travelling across the country, I started discovering amazing Canadian women. I hiked the Chilkoot Trail in the Yukon and I discovered the story of Martha Black, and later I was camping with my family in New Brunswick and noticed a little plaque about a woman that said “Captain Molly Kool, first female sea captain in Canada.” I just started discovering all these people and thought, “Hey, how come I’ve never heard about these women?” So, I wrote my two books and I started giving talks to women’s groups and created my website, Heroines.ca.

Q: What motivated you to launch a petition to re-add women to our banknotes?

A: When the new polymers came out, the Famous Five and Thérèse Casgrain had been on the back of the $50 bill and they were dumped for an icebreaker. I thought that was unacceptable; women are half the population and there’s really no excuse for them not being honoured on half the banknotes. So I started the petition in July 2013.

Q: How did you raise awareness about your campaign?

A: I was very active on social media and I tried to contact all kinds of journalists who had written about women’s issues and might be interested in the topic. I wrote letters to every MP, I phoned key politicians who were involved in women’s issues and the status of women and tried to get their support. And I got the support of notable Canadians who helped get publicity for the campaign, [including] author Margaret Atwood, actress Kim Cattrall, Judy Rebick, author Charlotte Gray, actress Cynthia Dale, journalist Shelagh Rogers, poet Lorna Crozier…

Q: What kind of response did you get from MPs?

A: Most of them ignored me. Some wrote polite letters. There was really not a lot of support. I wrote letters to the PM [Trudeau], the same with a number of his cabinet ministers [and no response]. However, they did act on this, so I think that things were going on behind the scenes to discuss it.

Q: What was your reaction when you heard the news that a woman would be featured on one of the new banknote designs in 2018?

A: I was thrilled! It was a memorable International Women’s Day. After a few years of campaigning you almost think this is never going to end, so I was so glad that there is going to be action taken.

Q: Why is it important to have Canadian women represented on our banknotes?

A: I think that women hold up the sky and it’s just so important that who and what we celebrate on our banknotes reflects society and who we are. It shows what we consider important in our culture and history and who we consider worthy of honouring for achievement. The symbols that surround us are really important. When we open our wallets and see the faces of four male prime ministers and Queen Elizabeth, the subtle message is that Canadian women aren’t worthy of being celebrated. It’s important, especially for girls, to see these women as role models and to know that your country recognizes the accomplishments of women.

Q: What else would you like to see from the Trudeau government in terms of supporting gender equality?

A: There are so many important social issues and things related to equal pay and that sort of thing, but it would be nice if the things that relate to the symbols could be dealt with as well. In the long term, having more buildings and streets named after women. I was encouraged to see in Montreal that there’s a big effort to have more women celebrated for their 375th anniversary, so they’re compiling a list. I think initiatives like that are great and they don’t have to come from the federal government, they can come from other groups as well as across Canada.

Q: Which iconic Canadian woman would you like to see featured on a banknote?

A: To be perfectly honest, I really don’t have a favourite. It’s not going to be easy to pick. I live in Victoria right now and I’m really a big fan of Emily Carr. I spent many years raising money to have a statue of her erected in Victoria. Barbara Paterson sculpted it, so now there’s this lovely statue of Emily Carr with her monkey on her shoulder and her little dog at her feet and it’s on the grounds of the Empress Hotel overlooking the [Victoria] harbour. She’s just one [potential candidate].

In the United Kingdom you may know that the next woman they’re going to have on a note is author Jane Austen. Many people here have suggested Lucy Maud Montgomery because Anne of Green Gables is such a beloved character. That’s an interesting one too.

Many people have also suggested that the woman on the banknote should be aboriginal because we really need to have some diversity as well. It’s a challenge to just have to pick one woman. We need more! Eventually I hope to see gender equality on the notes but having an iconic woman on the face of one banknote is an important first step.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.