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Gays, blacks nixed as images on bank notes

OTTAWA - The Bank of Canada considered celebrating gay marriages, black hockey players, and turban-wearing RCMP officers on its new plastic bank notes — but eventually nixed them all in favour of the more traditional images of a train, a ship and a monument.

Internal documents show that focus groups and a Bank of Canada team reviewed a series of currency images intended in part to reflect the diversity of Canada's population, particularly the country's varied ethnic character.

Images that were considered included a Chinese dragon parade, the swearing in of a new citizen, Toronto's annual Caribbean festival, children of different ethnic backgrounds playing hockey or building a snowman, and a person in a wheelchair playing basketball.

The image catalogue was drawn up in 2008 by The Strategic Counsel, a market research firm hired for $476,000 to help the Bank decide how to illustrate its new series of polymer $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. The first note, the $100, began circulating in November 2011.

Drawing on focus-group discussions and workshops with Canadians in six cities, the consultant found strong support for themes of "diversity, inclusiveness, acceptance of others/multiculturalism." Eventually, 41 image ideas covering several themes were tested and given scores.

Among the highest-rated images were those of children of different ethnic backgrounds building a snowman; faces of individuals from different cultures celebrating Canada Day; an image of a hand of many colours; and children of different ethnic backgrounds playing hockey. These selections were then presented by the Bank of Canada team to officials at Finance Canada for further vetting.

Many images proposed at the start of the process did not make the cut. Rejected were illustrations of a gay marriage, an RCMP officer wearing a turban, and "hockey with a twist ... with a black player."

The reasons for early rejection are not clear in the heavily censored documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The images that were finally approved for the reverses of the five new bills — the last two denominations, the $5 and $10, are being released later this year — lack reference to Canada's diversity of ethnicity, culture and colour.

The final images that were chosen all appear in the original 2008 lists. The $5 note will show robotic arms built for space programs and the $10 note, a train. The $20 note depicts the Vimy Ridge memorial in France, while the $50 has a picture of an icebreaker. The Queen and prime ministers occupy the fronts of the notes.

An earlier, uncirculated version of the $100 note, illustrating the theme of medical innovations, showed a female medical researcher with distinctly Asian features. But later focus groups raised questions about her ethnicity, prompting the bank to erase the Asian features in favour of a Caucasian-looking woman.

When The Canadian Press broke the story about the erasure last August, spokesman Jeremy Harrison said the Bank of Canada was striving for "neutral ethnicity" in its depictions of people on bank notes.

Harrison referred to "the Bank's long-held principles for bank note design, one of which is to avoid depicting any particular ethnic group when including people as representative images of a theme on a bank note."

Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney within days apologized for the incident, saying the design process would be reviewed "in light of these events. ... Our bank notes belong to all Canadians."

Asked why the bank in 2008 considered depicting people of different ethnic backgrounds when it was contrary to the institution's "long-held principles," Harrison said that focus-groups were given "the freedom to generate the widest possible range of ideas."

He also said the image lists from 2008 were themselves not final, but winnowed further in 2009 for presentation and approval by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in January 2010. Harrison declined follow-up questions: "We have nothing further to add."

The Strategic Counsel reports and image lists from 2008 contain other sometimes surprising elements that did not make the grade:

— Images of hockey were rejected by some as they would "glorify a violent sport."

— Suggested military images sparked controversy arising from Canada's role in Afghanistan, and from some people's preference for peacekeeping over warfare. The Vimy Ridge memorial, which was the image chosen for the $20 note, was seen as "sufficiently distant in time."

— A suggestion to depict ice wine was rejected by some because "alcohol should not be shown on bank notes."

— Proposals to depict "safe cities" and Canada's so-called "no gun" culture were rejected because the theme might not endure over the lifetime of the bank notes, e.g., cities might become more crime-ridden.

— Aboriginal art was snubbed by a few participants because "enough had been done by way of promoting aboriginal art."

— Images that included snow "may become more controversial should global warming progress," and are best avoided, said some.

— Pictures of wind turbines and solar panels were rejected because "clean energy is a controversial concept."

— Portraits of Terry Fox, Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson, and medicare trailblazer Tommy Douglas were all nixed.

The Bank of Canada has been dogged by other controversies after the release of the new plastic bank notes, including claims, since discounted, that they're prone to melting when placed near common heat sources; that the stylized maple leafs on the bills depict a European tree, not a native Canadian variety; and that vending-machine operators weren't given enough time to calibrate their machines to accept the new $20 notes.

The bank says the polymer bills will better thwart counterfeiters and last longer than traditional paper-cotton notes.

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