What to know about the five women on the Bank of Canada shortlist
The most popular online pick, Nellie McClung, did not make the final five as Bank of Canada decides which woman will be the first to front a banknote.
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For the first time, a Canadian woman is getting a new front-facing home on our currency. This week, the Bank of Canada narrowed the field to five.
Civil rights activist Viola Desmond, poet E. Pauline Johnson, suffragist Idola Saint-Jean, Olympic medalist Fanny Rosenfeld and aviation pioneer Elsie MacGill were all on the short list released by the Bank of Canada this week.
Here's a little of what you need to know about each of these remarkable Canadians.
Born in 1914, Viola Desmond grew up to be a pioneering black businesswoman in Nova Scotia. On Nov. 8 1946, she found herself spending the day in New Glasgow after her car broke down and took the opportunity to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre. When staff refused to sell her a ticket to the whites-only main floor, Desmond would not comply and took a seat. She was dragged from the theatre and thrown in jail overnight, without having been informed of her rights. The next day she was fined $20 plus a court cost of $6.
Desmond fought the charge, but a case of tax evasion was successfully argued against her. Lawyers said that because she bought a cheaper balcony ticket but instead sat in the main floor section, she was one cent short on the amusement tax.
After losing the case, Desmond left the province to attend school in Montreal before eventually settling in New York. She died in 1950 and is buried in Halifax today. In 2010, the province of Nova Scotia granted her a posthumus pardon and Halifax Transit unviled a new ferry named in her honour this past July.
Elsie MacGill was the first woman in Canada to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Toronto in 1927. She then went on to complete a master’s in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan before launching her career as the world’s first female aircraft designer. She earned the nickname the “Queen of the Hurricanes” for her leadership in the design of the Hawker Hurricane fighters that helped turn the tide during the Battle of Britain.
After starting a consulting business with her husband, MacGill went on to serve in several advisory roles on the way to becoming the first woman to chair a United Nations committee in 1947. She died in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980.
E. Pauline Johnson
E. Pauline Johnson was born in Ontario to a Mohawk chief and an English woman in 1861. In 1883, while writing and acting for theatre, she published My Little Jean, her first full-length poem.
Johnson would eventually adopt her grandfather's name, Tekahionwake, and go on to build a rich legacy as one of Canada’s finest writers with pieces including In The Shadows, Ode To Brant and A Cry From An Indian Wife, a story based during the Riel Rebellion that many consider to be her finest work.
After a successful career as a stage poet, she retired to Vancouver in 1909 where she continued writing until her death from breast cancer in 1913.
Hall of fame track and field star Fanny Rosenfeld held national records in several events and was a gold and silver-medallist at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. Dubbed Bobbie for her distinct bob haircut, Rosenfeld was named Canada’s Female Athlete of the First Half-Century.
After arthritis forced her from competition, Rosenfeld took on a career as a coach and sports administrator in Ontario. She eventually launched a career in journalism, covering women’s sports for nearly two decades in her Feminine Sports Reel column at the Globe and Mail. She died in Toronto in 1969.
A key leader in Quebec’s suffrage movement, Saint-Jean was among a group of women who first met with Quebec Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau in 1927 with a demand to extend the provincial franchise to women.
She would return to Quebec’s National Assembly with the same demand every year until the franchise was finally granted in 1940, nearly 20 years after women were made eligible to vote in federal elections. She died in Montreal in 1945.
Nellie McClung Misses The Cut
Interestingly, Alberta suffragist Nellie McClung who fought for women to be legally recognized as persons in Canada, did not make the cut despite finishing first overall in an online survey and receiving support from the likes of Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.
However, others have pointed out that McClung’s vocal support of the racist eugenics movement in the early 20th century, which included advocating forced sterilization.
Forced sterilization laws remained a part of Canada’s criminal code until the 1970s.
McClung did have short stint as a currency icon, though. She was depicted along with her fellow Famous Five -- Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy, Lousie McKinney and Irene Parlby — on the back of the $50 bill introduced in 2004. However, they were dropped from the 2011 redesign.
The Bank of Canada will announce the winner on Dec. 8.