Students will use a historical thinking approach to examine historical significance, continuity and change in Canadian bank notes.
In 2018, the Bank of Canada unveiled a new $10 bank note featuring Viola Desmond—the first woman other than royalty to be featured on a regularly circulating Canadian bank note. Viola Desmond was the first portrait subject chosen by Canadians in a public nomination process. In 2020, the Bank of Canada invited Canadians to nominate a new portrait subject for the next $5 bank note.
Bank notes provide a wonderful opportunity to explore the concepts of historical significance and continuity and change, two of the historical thinking concepts incorporated into many provincial and territorial curricula.
The portraits, symbols and images on Canadian bank notes are historically significant and show both continuity and change over time.
Approximately 60 minutes of instructional time with options for research in class time or as homework
Grades 6 to 10, Elementary Cycle Three to Secondary I to IV
- Past and present: Changes in everyday objects
- Heritage and identity: Communities in Canada, past and present
- Historical significance, continuity and change
- Use of the historical inquiry process to investigate different cultural and social groups throughout Canada
- Significant Canadians throughout history
- Identity, citizenship and heritage
- Historical significance, continuity and change
- examine bank notes as visual historical documents using the social studies and historical inquiry processes
- use the concept of historical significance to examine the portrait subjects of Canadian bank notes
- construct arguments defending the significance of various famous Canadians
- assess continuity and change in the symbols and images on Canadian bank notes
Classroom supplies and technology
- Computers or tablets with internet access for students (one per two students)
- Handout 1 on portrait subjects on bank notes (one copy per student)
- Handout 2 on symbols and images on bank notes (one copy per pair of students)
From the Bank of Canada:
Activity 1: Who is on our bank notes?
Students will examine the selection criteria for who appears on Canadian bank notes and make a list of people who would qualify.
40 minutes (plus additional class or homework time for research)
1.1 Opening discussion
As a class, examine the vertical $10 bank note, using either the photo on our website or the physical note.
Ask your students to look closely.
- What images do you see on this bank note?
Bank notes have many parts:
- The denomination is how much a bank note is worth.
- The portrait is the picture of the person featured on the bank note.
- Symbols and images are the other pictures on the bank note. Some of these symbols and images also double as security features that help keep Canadian bank notes safe from counterfeiting.
- These symbols and images support the overall theme of the note.
Examine the $10 bank note featuring Viola Desmond and note these parts:
- Denomination: $10 or ten dollars
- Portrait: Viola Desmond
- Symbols and images: Learn more
- a map of Halifax’s historic North End, where Viola lived and worked
- the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a national museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba that aims to inspire and promote respect for others while encouraging reflection and dialogue about human rights
- an eagle feather, an Indigenous symbol for ideals such as truth, power and freedom
- an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals in the highest law of the land
- the laurel leaf, as seen in the Supreme Court of Canada, an ancient symbol of justice
- the Library of Parliament’s dome ceiling
- the Canadian flag
- the Canada Coat of Arms
- maple leaves
- Theme: human rights and social justice
1.2 Hands-on activity
In Activity 2, students discuss the symbols and images found on their bank notes. However, for this activity, ask some students to share and discuss their portrait subject:
- How would you decide who to put on a bank note?
- What makes someone historically significant? What criteria for determining [this/historical significance] are important to you?
Ask students to share their criteria. Record their answers on the board. Explain that, starting with the vertical $10, portrait subjects for Canadian bank notes have had to meet specific criteria. The portrait subject:
- is a Canadian (by birth or naturalization)
- has demonstrated outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field, benefiting the people of Canada or in the service of Canada
- has been deceased for at least 25 years (former prime ministers and the reigning monarch are exceptions)
- is not a fictional character
Tell the students the story of the creation of the vertical $10 bank note:
Viola Desmond was the first portrait subject to be chosen by the Canadian public. In 2016, the Bank of Canada invited Canadians to nominate a woman they felt deserved to be recognized on a bank note. This nomination process resulted in 461 candidates. The Bank then asked an Advisory Council of prominent Canadians to evaluate nominees based on their historical significance. The council developed a shortlist of five nominees using an additional set of criteria:
The nominee needed to:
- have broken or overcome barriers
- be inspirational
- have made a significant change
- have left a lasting legacy
The list of five candidates was then given to the Minister of Finance, who made the final choice of portrait subject for the $10 note.
Students should choose a partner and complete the second part of Handout 1 together. They will have to research the portrait subject on their bank note and answer questions about that person’s historical significance. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Heritage Minutes and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography are good places to start. You may want to allow them the rest of the class period for this, or assign it as homework and lead the discussion in the next class.
Ask a few pairs of students to share their answers and whether they think their portrait subject is or is not historically significant. Allow the class to discuss or vote on whether they would choose each potential portrait subject.
Historical significance varies from person to person and group to group. In their own way, each of these portrait subjects is significant to some Canadians. Historical significance also changes over time. The legacy of some of these portrait subjects has changed since they were first featured on a bank note.
Ask the students:
- What do you think of the criteria for historical significance chosen by the Bank of Canada and the Advisory Council?
- What other criteria would you include?
- What are some aspects of continuity that you noticed when you heard about different portrait subjects over time?
- What are some aspects of change that you noticed when you heard about different portrait subjects over time?
Activity 2: Continuity and change in bank notes
Students will examine the symbols and images on Canadian bank notes and reflect on continuity and change. They will choose their own theme and symbols to represent Canada.
Ask students to share some of the symbols and images they found on the bank notes they examined in Activity 1. Write the answers on the board.
Ask the students:
- Do all of these symbols and images represent Canada to you?
- Which of these symbols and images are most important to you?
- Which of these symbols and images would you change?
2.2 Hands-on exercise
Explain to the students that, after consulting with Canadians in 2014, the Bank of Canada established the Principles of Bank Note Design. In designing bank notes, the Bank is concerned with security, functionality, accessibility and bilingualism—but also that notes represent Canada. Bank notes:
- promote Canada and Canadians: our values, culture, history, traditions, achievements and/or natural heritage
- are clearly identifiable as Canadian through the use of symbols, words or images
- are meaningful to Canadians today and for years to come
- evoke pride and confidence in Canada
Distribute one copy of Handout 2 to each pair of students and ask them to complete the chart. Students will identify each symbol and image and use the guiding questions to assess their significance.
Ask students to share some of the symbols and images they found, why they believe the symbols and images are or are not significant, and whether this significance has changed over time.
- Do you believe the symbols and images you looked at on your bank notes fulfill these criteria?
- How have symbols and images on bank notes changed over time? How have they stayed the same?
- If you could choose symbols and images that fulfill the criteria from the Bank’s principles of bank note design, what would you choose?
- Is it important to you that Canada’s bank notes change or stay the same over time?
- Choose A Bank NOTEable Canadian for the new $5 bank note and Design your own bank note with this portrait subject and the symbols and images that have meaning for you.
- Think critically and write about a portrait subject from a Canadian bank note: their historical significance and how they represent Canada.
- Use this lens of historical significance to compare the people on Canadian bank notes with those on the bank notes of another country. A great place to find these bank notes is on the website of that country’s central bank.