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Language and Culture (13-17)

What would a $20 bill look like if it had an Indigenous woman front and centre?

January 24, 2023

Native Women’s Association of Canada’s ‘Change the Bill’ exhibition reimagines Canada’s banknote

Change the Bill, a project from the Native Women’s Association of Canada, aims to promote reconciliation through art by commissioning Indigenous artists to reimagine the $20 bill with the Indigenous women who are their heroes. (NWAC)

CBC News: For Mi’kmaw artist Tracey Metallic, the late Margaret (Pictou) LaBillois is one of her heroes.

That’s why she chose to feature her in a design challenge to re-imagine Canadian banknotes with inspirational Indigenous women.

The project, Change the Bills, is being run by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) as a way to promote the contributions and accomplishments of Indigenous women. “There’s so much that this woman has done and contributed not only for her community, but for all First Nations,” said Metallic, who is from Listuguj in the Gaspé region of Quebec.

LaBillois, who died in 2013 at the age of 89, was from Eel River Bar First Nation (Ugpi’ganjig) in New Brunswick. She joined the Royal Canadian Air Force women’s division during the Second World War and served as a photo reconnaissance technician. She mapped the Alaska Highway, a wartime construction project that connected Alaska to the rest of the United States through Canada.

She later became the first woman to be elected as a chief in New Brunswick and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1996 for her leadership and dedication to the revitalization of the Mi’kmaw language and culture.

Margaret (Pictou) LaBillois served during the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division as a photo reconnaissance technician.
The $20 banknote of Margaret (Pictou) LaBillois designed by Mi’kmaw artist Tracey Metallic. (NWAC)

“Anybody that had the privilege of meeting her, she left an impact on that person,” said Metallic. “Her heart was so open, gentle, kind. She just she just had a universal knowledge.”

Using art to raise awareness

Irene Goodwin, NWAC’s director of policy and programs, culture and art, said the Change the Bill project is a way to raise awareness of the contributions of Indigenous women to Canadian history and society. Nine Indigenous artists were commissioned to produce work that is on exhibition in Toronto. “Canada has been printing money for over 150 years, and in that time an Indigenous woman has never been featured on the Canadian banknote,” said Goodwin.

Indigenous people have been represented on Canadian banknotes only a handful of times. As a part of the Scenes of Canada series, which was in circulation between 1969 and 1979, the $2 bill depicted six Inuit men preparing their kayaks for a hunt and was based on a photograph taken by documentarian Douglas Wilkinson of the Idlout family.

In 2017, to celebrate the 150th year since Confederation, the $10 banknote featured James Gladstone who was the first indigenous person to serve in the Canadian Senate.

“Our aim is to increase and bring attention to the underrepresentation and marginalization of Indigenous women in Canada,” said Goodwin.

Honouring family

Goodwin said each artist who responded to the call out for submissions chose who they wanted to recognize as a hero. “It was really interesting to see the submissions that we did receive — from Indigenous women who are very high profile in certain areas of their work to [an] Indigenous woman who is a residential school survivor and a kokum to one of the artists,” said Goodwin.

Jennifer Faria, a children’s book illustrator and portrait painter, chose her great-aunt Glenna Simcoe. Simcoe, who died last year, was a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation in southern Ontario. “I had a bit of a tumultuous childhood and she was just a really stable, positive influence in my life,” said Faria, who is based in Burlington, Ont.

“She would take me out a lot of times, like in Toronto to a lot of cultural events.”

Jennifer Faria holding the design for her bill featuring her great-aunt Glenna Simcoe.
Jennifer Faria’s $20 bill features her great-aunt Glenna Simcoe. (Submitted by Jennifer Faria)

She said her great-aunt introduced her to museums, ballets, and plays and inspired her to become an artist.   “I think it was really important to me to honour her in that way. I wish she was here to see it,” said Faria.

The re-imagined banknotes are on exhibition at The Local Gallery in Toronto until Jan. 28.

Metallic said she won’t be able to attend, but is happy that others, including LaBillois’ family, will able to see the exhibition. “So many times in the media … it’s usually negative. We don’t often hear about inspiring stories,” said Metallic. “Having her on the face of the $20 bill would show that, you know what? We are out there, and we have made contributions to society.”


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.