Help neuter Canada’s currency

Help neuter Canada’s currency
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Constant teasing about “Monopoly Money” aside, it can’t be denied that for several decades Canadian banknotes were among the most attractive in the world.

I grew up using the so-called “Bird Series” bills (circa 1986-2001), which featured wonderfully elegant cross-hatched etchings of our queen, various prime ministers, and parliament buildings, plus, of course, a selection of Canada’s most beautiful avian life. I can still remember the thrill of seeing a snowy owl on the back of a 50, or the mysteriously stoic face of Robert Borden on the 100. This was what currency was supposed to look like: distinguished, proper, sophisticated — maybe even little stuffy.

The birds were followed by the so-called “Journey Series” bills at the start of the new millennium, and though these notes were considerably more sleek and modern in design, they also placed a greater emphasis on honouring more complex and sophisticated Canadian imagery. Done wrong, a “salute to winter sports” (the theme of the $5 bill) or a “tribute to Native art” (featured on the 20) could appear trite or corny, yet the Journey bills managed to pull both off with considerable artistic flair — and restraint.

But the new 2011 Polymer series? Ugh. Apparently the Bank of Canada felt that simply changing the material of our bills from paper to plastic (itself a questionable choice) would afford them a pass on phoning in the actual designs.

Gone are the interesting and memorable portraits of the PMs; in come incredibly conventional photographs clearly pulled from the “page 1” matches of a Google image search. Though the themes of Canadiana remain, the interesting artistic designs of the “Journey” series have been ditched in favor of a bland dump of floating clip art. “We need a ‘tribute to peace’ for the 20? Okay, Vimy Ridge, poppies, Canada flag. Plunk plunk plunk — done. Negative space? Who am I, Monet?”

The art on the Polymer bills is so bad, in fact, you’d almost think it was ugly by design. Which, of course, we now know it was.

A particularly goofy story that has been all over the Canadian press this week is the revelation that the Bank of Canada designed the country’s latest round of dollar bills using that most intellectually bankrupt of artistic institutions — the focus group. According to documents obtained by the Canadian Press, Canada’s national bank spent some $53,000 conducting four advisory panels in 2009, soliciting the input of “average Canadians” for feedback on their draft designs.

Here’s an excerpt from the Globe and Mail, to give you some sense of the crack team the Bank was able to wrangle up:

… some people thought a DNA helix in the $100 banknote’s science theme resembled a sex toy. Others thought they saw religious symbols in the drawing of the Peace Tower.

Some said the Canadian research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen on the $50 bill looked like a foreign ship, while others thought they saw an American flag aboard.

On the new $20-bill, a few mistook a sketch of the Vimy Ridge memorial for the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Others were concerned about drawings of nude statues that are included in the memorial.

What’s worse is that some of these insane observations were apparently taken seriously, most notably the complaint that a stock footage research scientist depicted on the back of the 100 looked “too Asian” for a Canadian bill.

“Some believe that it presents a stereotype of Asians excelling in technology and/or the sciences,” summarized the Bank’s after-the-fact report. “Others feel that an Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented on the banknotes. Other ethnicities should also be shown.” So Dr. Asian was given the kibosh, and, by the Bank’s own admission, “Photoshopped” into someone bearing a more “neutral ethnicity”.

This revelation predictably raised the loudest hullabaloo of all. In a country as nervously multicultural as Canada you can’t go around claiming that being white, which the “fixed” woman on the $100 bill quite obviously is, is somehow the “neutral” setting for race. And even if it was, what are we to make of the even-less ambiguous races of the PMs and queen that already adorn every bill? Did their inclusion also provoke cries that “other ethnicities should also be shown?”

The head of the Bank of Canada, Governor Mark Carney, officially apologized for the flap on Monday, and in the aftermath some pundits have taken to describing the whole incident as a shameful reminder that Canada still has a lot of racist sentiment bubbling below the surface, yadda yadda. Personally, I think the lesson should be something closer to “when you give stupid people stupid powers, they’ll make you do stupid things.”

“We will be reviewing our design process in light of these events,” said Governor Carney. “Our bank notes belong to all Canadians.” By this, I hope he meant that the Bank would be going back to their old system of simply trusting their designers to make good designs without a lot meddling by self-appointed moral guardians. A more realistic interpretation, however, is that future bills will be subject to more focus-group scrutiny, more hyper-sensitivity to political correctness, and more aggressively asserted vetoes from every minority constituency with a victim complex. The end result will be even more hideously bad designs for our currency, perhaps culminating in something as depressingly neutered as the Euros, with their region-unspecified, non-existent “unity architecture” and soothingly unpatriotic geometric shapes.

Oh well. At least we’ll always have the birds.


  1. Nick Wood

    If they want to make bills out of polymer, perhaps they should consider Tyvek?

    As for the designs, people should be out in the streets. I would be embarrassed to pass this kind of note to anyone. The current authorities at the Bank of Canada are punching way above their weight with these changes. I can't believe they think they can circulate this garbage over the vastly superior old designs.

  2. Nick Wood

    … upon further research, it turns out that some countries actually DID use Tyvek for paper money (eg. Haiti, and Isle of Man). The problem with that polymer is that ink tends to fade more readily than other materials.

  3. Quattro

    If I ever get on one of those focus groups I'm going to suggest a polar bear fight or something for back of the bill, that would be cool. It can be part of the extreme nature series.

  4. ThePsudo

    A polar bear fighting a Mountie on a beaver dam under the Canadian flag while a flock of loons fly past overhead.

    Hrm… it needs an electric guitar…

  5. Zulu

    Asian? The woman had wavy light hair!

  6. @Kisai

    I just can't believe this was ever a news item. "Focus group outs racists, news at 11"

    I've seen people handling the new bills but I haven't seen one up close yet. They should just do what they do with the metal money and change the pattern every year, that would do more to keep counterfeiting in check than simply keeping the same design for 10 years. People who are using "old" bills would have their old bills checked more carefully. The reason, of course, why this doesn't happen is because all the electronic bill-reading machines would have an absolute fit. Today they can be flash-upgraded over the internet. But then again, why do people still use cash at all? Debit Cards and Credit cards cost someone money, and the Mint chip is still just an idea.

  7. Jake_Ackers

    Just pick a design and stick with it like the US has done. Make it all politicians or founding fathers then you avoid this problem. But currency design aside. My main problem would be the fact there is even a Bank of Canada. I don't know how it is in Canada. But if it's anything like the Federal Reserve then it's nothing more than the federal government playing the game and being the referee at the same time.

  8. B. Tracey

    Oh I wish you hadn't reminded me of the birds series. Those bills were so elegant and lovely. I want them back.

  9. Taylor

    I'd settle for just the $2 back.

  10. OldsVistaCruiser

    I don't know if Canada invalidates certain series of bills after a set amount of time, but any bill or coin that the U.S. has ever issued is still valid, with the possible exception of the 1933 gold $20 coin or the 1913 "V" nickel (the double eagle was recalled by FDR, and the nickel was an illegal clandestine minting by a US Mint employee). However, old currency is worth far more than face value to collectors.

    Speaking of "Monopoly money," has anyone noticed that the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing has adopted the exact same colo(u)r scheme as real Monopoly money for the latest paper money? That's right, the $5 has a pink tinge, the $10 has a yellow tinge, the $20 is green, the $50 has a blue tinge, and the $100, which hasn't been released due to printing problems, has a gold tinge.

  11. Rasden

    Why the fuck would you need a ethnically neutral person for your money . Are you Canadians so afraid of being proud of Canadian people you try to shoehorn immigrants as being you

  12. Tweeg

    Ugly money to help portray the ugly country we're becoming.

    We have a fat stupid ugly pm so might as well have the bills to match.

  13. B. Tracey

    How trenchant.

  14. Rasden

    SO Canada is dead. Welcome to Huncover .Remember peace and prosperity for Canadians spirals from a Rifle into an invader

  15. Nirbo

    The sick part about the plastic money is that we're wasting a fortune getting it wrong. The Aussies have been using polymer bills for over a decade. Also, they're our allies. Maybe we should be asking them BEFORE we guess at our "advancements."

  16. Bill Steamshovel

    Good call. I'd bet the first thing they'd say is make sure you don't put any pictures of a killer whale giving a blow job on your currency.

  17. Eddie

    Electric guitar? This is Canada man! The only instruments allowed on MY currency are either a bone flute made from an adorable seal, or a set of playing spoons!

  18. Mark

    I think he should draw canadas provinces as children with quebec as the rebelious spoiled kid dabbling in crime

  19. Kevin

    This is a fantastic web page, could you be interested in doing an interview about just how you designed it? If so e-mail me!