Barbershop banknote: Did Sir John A. Macdonald get a $10 haircut?

A new banknote to commemorate Canada's 150th birthday appears this June, but only after a last-minute design change to remove a stray lock of hair from Sir John A. Macdonald.

2nd 'hairy banknote' fiasco avoided after focus groups spot stray locks, unruly eyebrow

Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz, right, and Ginette Petitpas Taylor, parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance, unveiled the Canada 150 commemorative bank note with April 7. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Hair today, gone tomorrow?

Focus groups hired to vet the final design of the Bank of Canada's newest $10 banknote raised a surprising concern: Sir John A. Macdonald's unruly hair.

It seems a stray lock of the first prime minister's hair was touching the head of his neighbour, in images on the prototype bill to commemorate Canada's 150th birthday.

"Hair on the right side of Sir John A. Macdonald's face touching Sir George-Étienne Cartier's ear," warns the official report from the private preview of the banknote.

Cartier's image also had an annoying hair problem.

"Eyebrows with one hair in particular sticking up," says the focus-group report by Pollara Strategic Insights on the design of the new plastic banknote, which begins circulating June 1.

The Bank of Canada won't say what it did, but Sir John A.'s unruly lock of hair and Sir George-Etienne Cartier's eyebrows, highlighted in the above image, have been tamed in the final version of the $10 commemorative banknote. (Bank of Canada/CBC illustration)

Bank officials declined to say exactly what they did to resolve those problems.

But images of the approved commemorative $10 note, released this month, show Sir John A.'s hair a respectful distance from the ear of Cartier, whose eyebrows have no observable rogue hairs.

'Valuable feedback'

Can we call it the Barbershop Banknote?

"Focus group participants provided valuable feedback on many aspects of the preliminary design concepts, and where appropriate the bank considered their input in further developing the design of the Canada 150 note," said Bank of Canada spokesperson Josianne Menard.

She declined to say whether these two Fathers of Confederation had been given a trim.

The Pollara focus groups — five cities, 94 participants — were conducted last August as part of the bank's efforts to avoid a repeat of a previous hairy-banknote disaster.

In 1954, the central bank introduced a new series of banknotes featuring an engraving of the newly coronated Queen Elizabeth II. But wags soon spotted a problem with the royal hair.

The Queen's flowing locks appeared to contain the image of a grinning demon, and the notes were soon dubbed the "Devil's Head" or "Devil's Face" currency.

The 1954 run of Canadian banknotes had to be modified to address what some saw as a smiling devil's face in the Queen's hair. (Bank of Canada/Flickr)

Embarrassed central bank officials had the image re-engraved to purge the demon, and re-issued the notes in 1956. Those original "Devil's Head" banknotes, in pristine condition, can be worth a lot of money today.

A closer look at the Queen's hair reveals patterns that some saw as the eyes, nose, mouth and horns of a smiling devil. (Bank of Canada/Flickr)

The central bank has had other banknote gaffes over the years.

In 2013, officials learned they had misidentified a mountain that appeared on its new plastic $10 notes.

The bank called it Mount Edith Cavell, but a sharp-eyed Toronto professor proved it was another peak. The Bank of Canada didn't change the banknote in that case, just altered the official description of the images.

Purged Asian image

In 2012, Mark Carney, then governor of the Bank of Canada, apologized to Canadians for the way an image of an "Asian-looking" woman scientist was removed from an initial design for a new $100 banknote.

Focus groups had raised questions about the Asian ethnicity of the image, and the woman's features were changed to Caucasian.

The Bank of Canada was forced to apologize in 2012 after it altered the design of the $100 bill following feedback by focus groups that felt a scientist depicted on the bill looked Asian. (Canadian Press)

The August 2016 focus groups were actually the second round of focus-group vetting for the new $10 commemorative note, of which only 40 million will be released — with about half expected to be retained as souvenirs rather than circulated.

The first round was in July 2015. Back then the prototype had the image of just one famous Canadian — Sir John A.

More diversity, please

The focus groups found the image suitable "but encouraged the bank to explore a more diverse representation of our country," said Menard.

So the Bank of Canada eventually gave Macdonald three neighbours — Cartier; Agnes Macphail, the first woman MP; and James Gladstone, the first treaty First Nations senator.

That four-portrait version was eventually approved by Finance Minister Bill Morneau. So the $10 banknote appearing this June is the net result of almost three years of public-opinion surveys, focus groups, online consultations, vetting by historians and a final check by more focus groups last summer for any "unintentional errors."

The project, started under a Conservative government and concluded under the Liberals, was budgeted at $5.4 million. The final $10 polymer notes each cost about 4.5 cents more to produce than the current regular $10 banknotes, partly because of the extreme vetting.

That $10 denomination was chosen because it "is a lower-value denomination, therefore accessible for all Canadians," says an internal bank document, among several obtained by CBC News for this story under the Access to Information Act.

Next year, yet another $10 banknote is planned, this one for regular circulation and featuring an image of Viola Desmond, a black Nova Scotia woman who stood up to racism.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


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