Thursday, January 23, 2014

Revisiting the Canadian $10 Bill

Back in May, I wrote the following about Canada's new $10 bill:

It wasn't exactly a secret that the new $10 bill would feature VIA Rail's The Canadian, but now it has been officially released.  Unfortunately, my first impression is that it is UGLY!

However, looking at the route map in the background, does this mean that the government will keep funding VIA all across Canada?  It would be pretty pathetic to have to re-issue bills if there were more budget cuts.
Zoom: Canada's new polymer $5 and $10 bills

Now that the bill is in circulation, I have been able to actually hold it and examine it more closely. In reality, the artwork is much nicer than the photograph suggests and it is quite an attractive design (as far as the polymer notes go). It isn't as ugly as I first thought and I expect it to grow on me.

Canada $10 Bank Note. Courtesy: Bank of Canada
The new Canadian $10 bill. Courtesy: Bank of Canada

One of the things that interested me about the bill was the route map in the background. It appears to show all of VIA Rail's routes across Canada. It can't show all of Canada's railways, because the Ontario Northland and the CN/Algoma Central are (among others) missing. However, as I warned in my initial musings, the map is now incorrect. VIA Rail no longer operates trains on Vancouver Island and the train to Gaspé has also been cancelled. As such, the map on the banknote is no longer accurate and represents VIA Rail as it was in the past, not the present.

The locomotive on the bill, F40 #6403, also no longer exists - sort of. Following the release of the new bill, VIA renumbered the locomotive to #6459 in case the bill jinxed it. Further, all F40 locomotives feature the 'VIA Rail Canada' logo on the nose, but it has been removed from the photo, leaving only the 'Canada' logo used by the government. Does this mean that VIA is erased from the image of railways in Canada?

To top it all off, the locomotive pictured was built by General Motors. When GM sold its locomotive division, the new owner, EMD, closed the entire London, Ontario operation when the unions didn't agree to a 50% pay cut. The bill's imagery is quickly becoming as dead as Sir John A. MacDonald in the top corner of the bill (sorry, Sir John).

What does this mean? Does the bill represent a Canadian past, rather than a present or future? I decided to put on my historian's hat and think about this puzzle. After a while, I decided that this new bill represents a lieux de mémoire - a concept articulated by the French scholar Pierre Nora, a leading theorist in memory history.

Nora's core concept is that memory is so prevalent because "there is so little of it left." [Nora, 7] As the past disappears, and our memory of it, we shelter in "lieux de mémoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de mémoire, real environments of memory." [Nora, 7] When we want to remember travelling by rail as a child, we get on a train and take a physical journey as well as one through our memory of past events. However, what if the train stops running? Then it has become what Nora describes as a lieux de mémoire. Railways, notably the Canadian Pacific, have a central place in the collective memory of Canadian identity. We are told in school that the railway built Canada, yet most Canadians do not experience railway travel on a regular basis. Apart from commuter rail in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, most Canadians never travel by train. [StatsCan] The reality is that passenger rail in Canada has been disappearing for generations. As a result, decades of Canadians have had little interaction with a rapidly-disappearing railway network. In recent years, VIA Rail has cut its network to focus mostly on the core Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor. As Nora puts it: "modern memory is, above all, archival." [Nora, 13] The train has already left the station, so to speak.

The image on the $10 bill is therefore a symbol of something that has disappeared from contemporary Canada: travel by train. More worryingly is that travel by train could truly be a thing of the past. Has the "continuity of memory" given way to "the discontinuity of history" as we realise that the past cannot be recreated? [Nora, 17] The lieux de mémoire is like a permanent hiatus, a safe place to put something that is gone. Why not enshrine it in a bank note?

I shall close with a final thought on the aesthetics of the bill. By choosing to depict the iconic Canadian in the Rockies, wouldn't it make sense to choose an image of the dome car at the end? It is far more photogenic and recognizable than the locomotives. You could even have the train winding through Morant's Curve... Oh wait, VIA doesn't travel through Morant's Curve anymore. Cutbacks in the 1990s meant that VIA only uses CN tracks through the Rockies. Yet another lieux de mémoire?

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 7–24. Online version.
Statistics Canada: Rail in Canada.