Is Canada's New $100 Bill Racist?

Martine Warren, a scientific advisor for the Bank of Canada has a close look at the bank's new circulating $100 bill in Toronto. Photograph by Nathan Denette/AP Photo

The Bank of Canada simply wanted to give its citizens some snazzy new bills that would be more durable and harder to counterfeit. But when it came to the images that would grace the currency’s faces, it was not so simple. First, focus groups felt the draft art on the new $100 bill was racist because it featured an Asian woman looking into a microscope, which they felt reinforced the stereotype that Asians excel in science. Some believed other ethnicities should be represented. The bank eventually released the bill last year, replacing the figure with a Caucasian woman, only to be called out recently by Chinese groups for bending to racism and not representing minorities on currency.

Despite the criticism, the bank will not be redesigning the note, says Julie Girard, a spokesperson for the Bank of Canada. The bank’s Governor Mark Carney said in a statement on Aug. 20 that “efforts by the bank note designers to avoid depicting a specific individual resulted in an image that appears to represent only one ethnic group. That was not the Bank’s intention, and I apologize to those who were offended—the Bank’s handling of this issue did not meet the standards Canadians justifiably expect of us.”

This is not the first time a redesign has caused a hullabaloo. Canadian focus groups were confused by the imagery on the new $20 that will start circulating in November, saying the structures on the bill resembled New York’s Twin Towers, reported CTV News in May (it’s actually the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France). Some also described the figures on the memorial as “pornographic” for featuring what appear to be naked women (they are allegorical figures known as “The Chorus” that represent peace, justice, hope, charity, faith, honor, truth, and knowledge).

It’s not only Canadians who get riled up about currency. Euro notes, which celebrated their 10th anniversary this year, were criticized as generic and lacking identity for featuring fake architectural structures in the interest of fairness among member EU states.

In the U.S., not all notes have been welcomed with the fandom that greeted the new $10 bill, introduced in 2006 (Alexander Hamilton appreciation groups have noted his hunky makeover on the new note). The silver certificates of 1896, for instance, were extremely unpopular at the time of issue for the complex artwork, which made it difficult for cashiers to count, says Ty Carnes, owner and founder of Currency Treasures of America in Atlanta. The $5 denomination in particular was controversial as it showed female figures’ naked breasts.

“Each U.S. note is designed with the intention to maintain an American look and feel, such as the patriotic images appearing on recent designed notes such as the torch carried by the Statue of Liberty on the $10 note,” Darlene Anderson, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, says in an e-mail.

The Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, introduced in 1979, was also criticized for being too similar in size and shape to a quarter. And while the Sacagawea coin has been minted every year since 2000, dollar coins have not caught on with the public, in part because they are heavy.

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