When the Bank of Canada removed the image of a woman scientist billed as Asian-looking from its new $100 banknotes, Rachel Décoste took to the Internet hoping to start a cross-country dialogue that would tackle some burning questions:
Is there a such thing as a Canadian? Can a person be an Asian, African, Somali, Indian and Canadian at the same time? What does it mean when someone identifies him or herself as Canadian?
The image of the woman scientist peering into a microscope next to a bottle of insulin was meant to celebrate Canada’s medical innovation. But focus groups criticized the choice of an Asian-looking person for the largest denomination of the new plastic polymer bills.
“Some believe that it presents a stereotype of Asians excelling in technology and/or the sciences. Others feel that an Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented on the banknotes. Other ethnicities should also be shown,” says a 2009 report commissioned by the bank from The Strategic Counsel, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The bank immediately had the image redrawn with what a spokesman called a “neutral ethnicity.” Now stripped of her Asian features, the woman scientist appears to be Caucasian. Across the country, minority groups voiced outrage and called the bank’s decision “racist.”
“One of the things that the national narrative of Canada negates most of the time are the struggles, the daily struggles that exist for people who are not ‘neutrally’ ethnic,” Décoste said. “I decided to start a forum where people share their experiences of living outside the umbrella of the neutral ethnicity.” In late August, she launched a website called Neutralethnicity.com, calling on Canadians to share their stories about belonging and identity.
“This is a chance for people to speak their truth and in the long term, I hope the stories could be something used in schools in classrooms to open people’s eyes.”
Stories have started to trickle into Décoste’s inbox — poems, stories and essays from Nova Scotia, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. Stories from Canadians like Abubakar Kasim, who wrote about his experience dealing with a frustrated traveler at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport as a customer service agent. The woman angrily said to him: “Can I speak to someone from this country, please?”
“I submitted my story to show my long term struggle in search for my identity. While I discovered my identity and got my citizenship, I am still viewed as an immigrant. When I tell people I am a Canadian, I am asked, “where are you really, really from?” Kasim said.
Anthony Morgan, a 26-year-old articling student in Ottawa plans to submit his own essay to the website soon.
“The Bank of Canada’s actions suggest that those who are not white can’t fully be Canadian. Given the dynamics of our society, given the contributions and presence of visible minorities in this country, that’s a huge problem,” said Morgan, who identifies himself as Black Canadian.
“Canadians should understand that the N word doesn’t have to be used and a cross doesn’t have to be burned for something to constitute as racist. It’s become entrenched in the minds of Canadians that unless there are flagrant expressions against minorities, then there is no overt racism. We need to work together to get to that point of recognition.”