What would a $20 bill look like if it had a native woman front and center on it?

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

That’s why she chose to feature them in a design challenge to reimagine Canadian banknotes with inspiring Aboriginal women.

The Aboriginal Women’s Association of Canada runs the Changing Bills project as a way to promote the contributions and achievements of Aboriginal women.

“There is so much that this woman has done and contributed not only for her community, but for all First Nations,” said Metalik, who is from Lestogouges in the Gaspé region of Quebec.

Labello, who died in 2013 at the age of 89, was originally from El River Bar First Nation (Ugbigangig) Village in New Brunswick. She joined the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Women’s Division during World War II and worked as a photo reconnaissance technician. I mapped the Alaska Highway, a wartime construction project connecting Alaska to the rest of the United States via Canada.

She later became the first woman elected as Chief of New Brunswick and was appointed 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 (Picto) served during World War II with the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division as a photo reconnaissance technician.
$20 Margaret (Picto) Labello Banknote designed by Mi’kmaw artist Tracy Metallic. (NWAC)

“Anyone who had the privilege of meeting her left an impact on that person,” Metalik said.

“Her heart was so open and kind and gentle. She just had universal knowledge.”

Using art to raise awareness

Erin Goodwin, NWAC’s director of policy, programs, culture and art, said the law change project is a way to raise awareness of Indigenous women’s contributions to Canadian history and society. Nine Indigenous artists have been commissioned to produce works that are on display in Toronto.

“Canada has been printing money for over 150 years, and in that time no Aboriginal woman has ever appeared on a Canadian banknote,” Goodwin said.

Indigenous peoples have been represented on Canadian banknotes only a few times. As part of the Scenes of Canada series, which was in circulation between 1969 and 1979, the two-dollar bill depicted six Inuit men preparing their kayaks for a hunt, and was based on a photograph taken by documentary photographer Douglas Wilkinson of the Idellott family.

In 2017, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Confederation, the $10 bill featured James Gladstone who was the first Aboriginal person to serve in the Canadian Senate.

“Our goal is to raise and draw attention to the underrepresentation and marginalization of Indigenous women in Canada,” Goodwin said.

Honoring the family

Goodwin said that each artist who responded to the call for submission chose who they wanted to be recognized as a champion.

“It’s been really exciting to see the entries we’ve already received – from Indigenous women who are very popular in certain areas of their work to [an] “An Aboriginal woman who survived boarding school is a kokum to an artist,” Goodwin said.

Children’s book illustrator and portrait painter Jennifer Faria chose her great-aunt, Glenna Simko. Simcoe, who passed away last year, was a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation in southern Ontario.

“I had a tumultuous little childhood and she was a really positive and stable influence in my life,” said Faria, who resides in Burlington, Ont.

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

Jennifer Faria holding her bill design featuring her aunt Glenna Simcoe.
Jennifer Faria’s $20 bill features her aunt, Glenna Simko. (Submitted by Jennifer Faria)

She said her aunt introduced her to museums, ballet, and plays, and inspired her to become an artist.

“I think it was really important for me to honor her in this way,” Faria said. “I hope you’re here to see her.”

The reimagined banknotes are on display at The Local Gallery in Toronto through January 28.

Metallic said she won’t be able to attend, but she’s glad others, including Labello’s family, will be able to see the show.

Metalik said, “A lot of times in the media… it’s usually negative. We don’t hear a lot about inspiring stories.”

“Having it on the $20 bill would show that, you know what? We’re out there, making contributions to the community.”

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