Merna Forster: 2016 Governor General’s History Awards

It was back in 2004 that I created my website, wrote my first book: A Hundred Canadian Heroines and then, after that time, I was giving a lot of presentations about women in Canadian history and then finally I did a second book in 2011 and that was the year that the Bank of Canada started issuing these new series of polymers and it soon became evident that the women who had been on the back of the fifty-dollar bill were cut and replaced by an icebreaker. So I thought, this really was a step backwards rather than a move towards gender equality, so eventually I started a petition to try and get women on Canadian bank notes. I really hope that there will be a greater awareness of the women in Canadian history. There was such a great media buzz and public interest after the announcement and there was a lot of discussion about who are these women from Canadian history that should be on the bank notes. So, I really hope it will make a difference. There seemed to be a national conversation about it: who are the women in Canadian history that we should celebrate? So, perhaps it will make a difference. I think it was another interesting result from the banknotes campaign that there was so much support of Canadians across the country about this. So I was really encouraged that, in May, Angus Reid did a cross-country survey and asked Canadians, “what you think about this issue?” and 80 percent of Canadians said they felt it was important that one or more women from Canadian history should appear on the face of a Canadian bank note. So it’s just a great result and it makes you wonder, why did a national institution not recognize women from Canadian history in the beginning. I don’t think that women’s history is taught a lot in schools to the extent that it should be and also the general public doesn’t seem to have a good awareness of women in Canadian history. I know that even among people who signed the petition, who were obviously very keen on women in Canadian history, would sometimes write, “I’m sure there’s some great women in Canadian history who should appear on the banknotes and I’m afraid to say I’m really not sure who they are.” A number of surveys have shown that there’s really not a lot of good understanding of who these people are. For example, in 2015, the Department of Canadian Heritage surveyed 12,000 Canadians and they asked them to name their favorite or most important Canadian heroes. This was done in preparation for the celebration of Canada 150 next year and, lo and behold, all 10 are men again. So i think it’s very worrisome. I don’t know what the answer is. Partly in the school system, partly to popularize stories of these women in Canadian history and I think in this respect, television and films and mass media, these sorts of things are really important in this day and age. I hope there will be a lot more projects to celebrate Canadian herstory because it’s really important, and these national symbols in particular that surround us, they reflect who and what we consider are important in our everyday life and also what about the naming of streets and schools and putting up statues that celebrate women. It’s really important.

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