Big controversy in Canada: New banknotes have the wrong maple leaf

January 21, 2013

Critics say the new Canadian 20 includes the wrong maple leaf. (Reuters)

Yes, the politics of national identity can be fierce even in Canada, where new banknotes are generating outrage because, according to critics, they feature a Norwegian maple leaf. This is seen as an affront to the 11-point red maple leaf that has adorned Canada's national flag since 1965. (Canada still flew the Union Jack until then, which might surprise American readers.) The Globe and Mail newspaper, which also features the red maple right there on its masthead, runs down the crisis:

“It’s rather sad. It’s not the first time that it’s happened,” said Julian Starr, a botany professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in plant identification and classification. “It’s almost Canadian in the fact that we can’t even get our symbols right.”

However, the Bank of Canada, which makes bank notes, says the $20 bill does not depict a Norway maple leaf, but rather a “stylized” design.

“We created an image for the bank note that represents a stylized Canadian maple leaf, if you will, so that it wouldn’t represent any specific species, specifically not the Norway maple,” said spokeswoman Julie Girard.

Ms. Girard said the bank worked with a botanist who specializes in trees. However, she declined to reveal the scientist’s name, citing privacy reasons.

National symbols are important, of course, and the sensitivity to using the proper icon is nothing particular to Canada. On Twitter, though, a Beruit-based architect and blogger named Karl Sharro points out a bit of irony: "The woman on the bill isn't Canadian, either." He would be referring to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England, who is still Canada's monarch. You have to wonder if the Canadians upset about a Norwegian leaf are bothered by the much larger foreign face that adorns those same banknotes.

It's a small irony that gets to a larger issue in Canada, one that goes back to the maple-leaf flag itself. When it was implemented in 1965, it came at the opposition of a number of Canadians of English heritage, who wanted to keep the old flag of the British Empire. It's a fascinating, if generally quiet, tug of war between a primarily Canadian national identity and a British heritage. And, yes, it's particularly sensitive in French-speaking Quebec.

Also, as an interesting side note: When I attempted to open the photo of the banknote in my image-editing software to resize it, an error message appeared telling me that the software "does not support" editing images of banknotes. It turns out that a number of currencies use something called the "EURion constellation," a series of dots named for a portmanteau of the Euro's technical name (EUR) and the Orion constellation, which the dots resemble. Photo-editing software and even photocopiers are designed to recognize the dots, which appear on medium and large denominations of many national currencies, and to lock out any images that include them. It's a rather brilliant way to forestall currency counterfeiting, even if it is a bit annoying for bloggers.

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Max Fisher | January 21, 2013