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JOHN DeMONT: Nova Scotians worthy of being the face of the new $5 bill

There are some of the Nova Scotians who would make a good candidate for the face of the new $5 bank note, says columnist John DeMont. Clockwise from top left, folk artist Maude Lewis, Cape Breton social reformer Moses Coady, Halifax Explosion hero Vince Coleman, solo globe circumnavigator Joshua Slocum, female ship's captain Bessie Hall and pioneering flyer J.A.D. McCurdy. - AGNS, Coady International Institute, Nova Scotia Museum, New Bedford Whaling Museum, Wikipedia, City of Toronto Archives
There are some of the Nova Scotians who would make a good candidate for the face of the new $5 bank note, says columnist John DeMont. Clockwise from top left, folk artist Maude Lewis, Cape Breton social reformer Moses Coady, Halifax Explosion hero Vince Coleman, solo globe circumnavigator Joshua Slocum, female ship's captain Bessie Hall and pioneering flyer J.A.D. McCurdy. - AGNS, Coady International Institute, Nova Scotia Museum, New Bedford Whaling Museum, Wikipedia, City of Toronto Archives - Contributed

It would be hard to match the Bank of Canada’s recent wisdom in choosing Viola Desmond’s image to grace our sawbuck.

But bank governor Stephen Poloz has asked for our input for someone to replace Sir Wilfrid Laurier on the five-spot.

So here goes — even if loads of names worthy of this honour have already surfaced, and it seems unlikely that, so soon after Desmond, another Nova Scotian would be allowed onto our national currency. In our favour, the selection criteria is sufficiently vague.

Poloz, in announcing the search, only said that the person had to be a historic Canadian who is “banknote-able” enough for the job. By so doing he ensured that the public consultations to choose the new $5 face will again be uplifting, unifying events, where we aw-shucks-Canadians get to blow our own horns.

If Desmond is the template a few assumptions can be made: to be truly banknote-able the person has to have done something that lives through the ages, as the Halifax civil rights pioneer did.

But it also helps if there is a narrative that soars. If the backstory is somewhat unfamiliar to the rest of the country, or at least the committee that will make the ultimate decision on the fiver, well, that might help too.

So what about Mt. Hanley’s own Joshua Slocum, who, leaving from Yarmouth, in his tubby homemade craft, ploughed through three oceans and completed the first solo circumnavigation of the globe.

An argument could be made that he was the world’s greatest mariner, before or since. Yet Slocum, barely remembered in his own province, ended his days ignominiously: there was the taint of rape accusations against him by a young girl. In his mid-60s, at loose ends ashore, he left Martha’s Vineyard to explore the headwaters of the Amazon and was never heard of again.

Which is not, perhaps, the kind of upward-and-onward yarn that makes a person banknote-able.

Then there is the matter of his visage, as grim and haunted as of one of those old-time fire and brimstone preachers, which is unlikely to win the 2019 international banknote of the year award, as Desmond, with her enigmatic Mona Lisa smile, did.

Neither Willard Boyle nor Arthur McDonald, our two Nobel prizewinners, look like they would shoot a mutinying crewmate, as Slocum had. All they did was change the world — although not as much as fellow Nova Scotia Abraham Gesner, the discoverer of kerosene, who ushered in the modern petroleum age, an honour that is unlikely to get a person on a $5 bill in these carbon footprintconscious days.

As far as I know J.A.D. Mc-Curdy, another Nova Scotian with eyes forever focused on the horizon, did nothing to take himself out of the running as our face for the $5 banknote.

McCurdy, you may recall, was the first person to successfully fly an airplane anywhere in the British Empire when he lifted the Silver Dart, which he designed and built, off the ice and into the air near his birthplace of Baddeck, N.S.

Overexposure might hurt the case for old Joe Howe, the orator, statesman and crusading journalist — the man who ushered responsible government into British North America and fought for every ink-stained wretch in the country when he won his famous battle for freedom of the press.

On the other hand, I doubt many have heard of Granville Ferry’s Bessie Hall. In 1870 she was just 20 when her father collapsed from smallpox, leaving her to take his ship from the tip of Florida to Liverpool, U.K., reputedly becoming the first female to captain a ship across the Atlantic Ocean.

These last two are faces from the misty past. So are some of my other nominees for banknote immortality: Father Moses Coady, the Cape Breton social reformer; Vince Coleman, the hero of the Halifax Explosion.

How about Joseph Broussard, also known as Beausoleil, the Acadian Che Guevera, who led the Acadian militia and the Mi’kmaq in armed resistance against the English in the late 17th century?

The last guy, who can trace his lineage directly to Beyoncé, is a stretch, even if the way the Acadians and first peoples lived harmoniously was a shining model for what is possible in this country.

The Acadian heroine Evangeline might have been in the running, were she not a figment of Longfellow's imagination.

But Maud Lewis was real, as was her story of resilience and beauty that transcended the pain and grinding poverty of her life.

So was Cyrus Eaton, founder of the Pugwash Conference, in the village of his birth, which was co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

While we are on the subject, what about even Dan R. MacDonald, the Duke Ellington of traditional Cape Breton musical composers, who travelled the back roads of his island, paying for his lodgings with hundreds of his one-of-a-kind tunes?

He was literally a wandering bard, linking Canada to the oldcountry traditions from which we all, in one way or another, sprang.

In that way, MacDonald’s is a far gentler tale than that of Viola Desmond, who literally changed the world. But stories and lives come in all forms, as Poloz and his people will be hearing in the months ahead.

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