The $100 word we won’t say

The Bank of Canada has stubbed its toe. Big time.

But on this occasion, its error had nothing to do with finance, mortgage rules, or the state of the Canadian economy. It had nothing to do with exchange rates, fiscal predictions, interest or debt obligations.

Indeed, one could reasonably argue that the faux-pas to which I refer is not remotely germane to the Bank’s mandate.

But that doesn’t even begin to diminish its significance.

On Friday, the Canadian Press reported that the Bank had elected to remove an image of an “Asian-looking woman” from its new $100 bank note, in response to “concerns” raised by focus groups in 2009. The solution, thereafter, was to replace the “Asian-looking woman” with a different woman, bearing whiter, more European features. Which brings me to the central theme of this post.

Canada’s new $100 dollar note has been at the centre of controversy over the last two weeks. Image c/o k-ideas/Flickr

WTF?

As one might expect, the move has not escaped harsh criticism from some representatives of our country’s visible minorities. But, perhaps in consideration of political correctness, or out of deference to such an exalted institution as the Bank of Canada, few members of the mainstream media appear willing to invoke the requisite term for the attitude and behaviour the Bank has demonstrated.

So, lest I deviate from this unofficially established standard of best practices, I’ve decided to represent the term in question, that word we all know but won’t say, with an “x”. As the first letter in xenophobia, and the initial by which legions of the impoverished and illiterate have signed contracts with their oppressors throughout history, it seems particularly appropriate.

The Bank of Canada’s decision constitutes x

As I am a Canadian citizen, by virtue of having been born in this country, I feel perfectly justified in calling myself Canadian. And, given my European heritage, I feel no discomfort in considering myself white, or European-Canadian. I’m not wild about the term Caucasian. But I’ll tolerate it without a fuss.

However, this week, a Bank of Canada spokesperson introduced me to a descriptor I had never before considered in defining my own ethnicity, and one I would not wish on my worst enemy.

“Neutral.”

Nevermind the fact that my parents are both immigrants. Nevermind that the vast majority of us Canadians, well over 90%, are either newcomers to this land, or descendants thereof. And nevermind that the word “neutral” calls to mind synonyms like insipid, motionless, forgettable, lacking in colour, conviction, personality, identity, vigour, uniqueness.

I’m “neutral”, which means, according to the Bank of Canada, people who look like me belong on my country’s currency, and people who look different from me do not.

Affording special privileges to an ethnic group based on an imaginary quality of superiority that group allegedly possesses?

As far as I’m concerned, this is the precise definition of x.

Why Carney’s apology won’t do

Of course, I’m glad Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney made some effort to apologize for this debacle. But too often overlooked in the anatomy of a proper, genuine apology, is knowing what one has done wrong in the first place. And it appears, based on Carney’s words, that he does not.

“I apologize to those who were offended — the Bank’s handling of the issue did not meet the standards Canadians justifiably expect of us,” Carney wrote in a statement, as if the organization’s “handling” of the “issue” were the crux of the problem, rather than the fact there was an “issue” in the first place.

The controversy over the $100 bank note is about so much more than political correctness, and how we go about presenting x in such a way as to make it more palatable to the public. It raises the fundamental question of what it means to be Canadian – and, by extension, what a “true Canadian” ought to look like.

First, let’s agree upon the premise that there is no such thing as an ethnic Canadian, that unlike Serbia, Uganda, Thailand, India or myriad other nations, the mental image of a Canadian ought to entail no default skin colour. Sure, this country’s population remains primarily white despite the great experiment in immigration that has taken place since the 1970s, but this is less the case all the time.

Of course, some may argue that aboriginal Canadians are essentially ethnic Canadians, but even this is not quite true; Canada, to the ancestors of our First Peoples, was an artificial construct, a figment of the pale colonizer’s imagination, a malapropism of the Iroquois word for “village” applied to a limitless and ill-defined expanse of territory.

After all, these were the same yahoos, the indigenous must have thought in the time shortly after colonization, whose geographic ineptitude was so monumental as to deliver them to the shores of the wrong continent.

No Canadian is more Canadian than any other; our Charter of Rights and Freedoms avers this principle unambiguously. Any sentiment to the contrary calls to mind one of the talismanic novels of Orwell. And I mean that in the most unflattering way possible.

Our history of “x” needs to be history

Canada has come a long way over the past century and change. But we still have a long way to go.

In no small part due to great courage and sacrifice, our country has blossomed into a world leader in human rights, women’s rights, religious and ethnic diversity. In only a few generations, we’ve jettisoned much of the bigotry and vitriol that previously hampered our progress and sullied our virtue.

We’ve emerged from a past laden with blatant examples of x: the Head Tax on Chinese immigrants, many of whom perished in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, one of this nation’s foremost engineering achievements; the Komagata Maru, which spent two months anchored in Vancouver’s harbour before being forced back to Asia; the treatment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, who baselessly faced an internment program far broader in scope and severity than did their German-Canadian counterparts; the plight of First Nations, who’ve seen their culture and languages assailed by various assimilatory endeavours; Africville, a community of black Canadians in Nova Scotia bulldozed in the 1960s in a process called “urban renewal.” In many ways, we’re better than we used to be. But the more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

The Bank’s mistake is not merely a regrettable oversight. It’s a reminder that we are far from “post-racial” – that in fact, “x” still imbrues our society, like a toxin seeping insidiously into the groundwater.

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