To include or not to include—that's the $100 question in Canada apparently. But it's one that we shouldn't even need to ask.
At issue is the depiction of an Asian-looking scientist that originally appeared on the new Canadian $100 bill.
The image, which featured a woman peering into a microscope alongside a strand of DNA and a bottle of insulin, was intended to celebrate Canada's medical innovations. (Canadian medical scientist Frederick Banting is credited with being one of the main discoverers of insulin. The polymer bill was released on November 14, 2011, which is World Diabetes Day and was also the 120th anniversary of Banting's birth.)
According to reports, the Bank of Canada consulted with eight focus groups about the proposed images for new $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 banknotes. (The focus groups, held in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and Fredericton, cost $53,000 to conduct.)
According to a 2009 report (commissioned by the Bank of Canada) obtained by the Canadian Press, focus group participants raised concerns about the Asian researcher.
On the one hand, some worried that it was a stereotypical association of Asian people with the sciences. Meanwhile, others felt that Asian people shouldn't be the only visible minorities represented. But still others were concerned that the yellowish-brown colour of the banknote played into perceptions of the woman as Asian. Seems like everyone had a problem with it, one way or another.
Then the bank caved in and withdrew the image. That's where things went sideways. Actually, backwards. The bank's attempts to defend itself exposed something inherently problematic about its approach.
They reworked the features of the woman to give her what they confusingly termed a "neutral" ethnicity. (Neutral? Yikes! Probably the term they really meant, but couldn't say, is the racial majority. But when it comes to identity politics, calling one ethnicity neutral is asking for trouble.)
The woman now appears to be Caucasian, their definition of neutrality. According to reports, the bank has a policy not to depict any specific ethnic group.
Unfortunately, this stance operates upon the mistaken notion that Caucasian people don't have ethnic origins. (Again, a translation: what they probably meant was that they can't depict any ethnic minority group.) It also supports the belief that Caucasian people can represent all ethnic groups while visible minorities or aboriginal people cannot.
Does this also mean that any Canadian public figures who aren't Caucasian would never appear on Canadian dollar bills? If, for example, David Suzuki (who was voted fifth greatest Canadian in 2004), Adrienne Clarkson, or Michaëlle Jean, were eligible to be on the bills, would they be excluded because of their ethnicity? And what would happen exactly once Canada elects its first prime minister who is not of Caucasian descent? What if, for instance, former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh went on to become prime minister? Would he be excluded?
And how is it even possible for this policy to be in place when the government of Canada has an official multiculturalism act? What's more, it's certainly a shortsighted, outdated one that has a very limited lifespan as Canadian demographics continue to undergo rapid change and visible minorities become the majority in numerous Canadian urban centres.
This example also illustrates what challenges organizations sometimes face when attempting to make tentative forays toward more inclusive representation. Mistakes will be made, and there's often awkwardness to be expected. But it's up to the Bank of Canada to continue to learn from this and persevere in attempting to become more reflective of Canada, and to catch up with the times, rather than continuing to render over five million Canadians invisible.
You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.