Queen Elizabeth is the only woman to ever grace a Canadian bank note. Photo/Flickr via KMR Photography [http://bit.ly/1TEDoSC]

Saints fit the bill

  • April 7, 2016

The search is on to find a Canadian woman of distinction to honour on an upcoming bank note. After asking why has this taken so long, the next question is who should it be?

The Bank of Canada is accepting nominations of accomplished Canadian women to feature on our bills sometime in 2018. It only took 150 years to get here. Queen Elizabeth, of course, has graced several denominations of bills as the head of state but Canadian women have consistently given way to various male prime ministers. So a shakeup is overdue.

To qualify, a woman must be Canadian born or naturalized and have demonstrated “outstanding leadership, distinction or achievement in any field.” They also have to be deceased for at least 25 years.

Many interesting names are being bandied about — Canada’s first female MP Agnes MacPhail, first female doctor Jennie Trout, Group of Seven artist Emily Carr, 1812 war heroine Laura Secord, Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery — but why not go further back in history and select one of the very first female achievers in Canada, someone who was instrumental in the founding of the nation?

Any honest assessment of Canada’s most prominent women should include three New France women who became saints, Marguerite Bourgeoys, Marguerite d’Youville and Marie de l’Incarnation. If this bank-note exercise is intended to acknowledge achievement and legacy, and if virtue and integrity are considerations, then each of these pioneering women are outstanding candidates.

St. Marie de l’Incarnation was an educator and prolific writer who embraced native culture rather than attempt to subvert it. She learned at least four different native languages and translated French religious texts into each. She also wrote thousands of letters to family and friends about life in New France which remain a valuable primary source for Canadian historians.

 St. Marguerite Bourgeoys dedicated her adult life to serving women and children and, in particular, educating young girls, the poor and native children at a time when no one else would. Rather than live in a convent, she lived among the poor. She founded public schooling in Montreal and founded the Congregation of Notre Dame, which over the decades sent sisters across the country to educate generations of Catholic Canadians.

A generation later, Marguerite d’Youville founded the Sisters of Charity (aka the Grey Nuns) and opened a home for the poor in Montreal. From that simple beginning, her nuns swept across Canada and launched homeless shelters, hospitals, schools and orphanages. Today we’d call that social infrastructure; d’Youville called it Christian charity.

Picking one woman from all of Canadian history to grace the currency won’t be easy, but any one of these three saints would quite literally fit the bill.

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