Canadian banknotes are constantly changing, attempting to craft a national identity and reflect an ever-changing society, as this article and the rest of our Canadian Banknote Series attest. With the Canadian 5 and 10 dollar bills undergoing vertical transformations and design changes, it seems likely that the Canadian 100 dollar bill will undergo a similar transformation in the future. 

At some point, the Bank of Canada will send the call for nominees to replace former Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden as the portrait on this Canadian bill. Until that happens, here are five things you may not know from the history of the Canadian 100 dollar bill.

Back in the Day: the early iterations and changing faces of the Canadian 100 bill

Long ago, before sepia-tone was a standard-issue photo filter on your smartphone and widely associated with aging photographs and all-things-‘ol-timey, the Bank of Canada selected sepia for the primary colour of the Canadian 100 dollar bill.

Sepia, the dominant colour of the Canadian 100 dollar bill, is the only constant maintained throughout each official Canadian banknote series 100 dollar bill.

Did you know that the first four Canadian 100 dollar bill banknotes featured four different portraits, and three of these portraits remain on Canadian banknotes in circulation at present?

There have been four portraits on the Canadian 100 dollar bill, with each individual gracing the first four series of banknotes until the Bank of Canada settled on Sir Robert Borden for the portrait with the “Scenes of Canada” series. Hold on as we chronicle the changing faces of the Canadian 100 dollar bill, featuring three names you know and one you’ll need to google.

The First Series

The “First Series” Canadian 100 dollar bill is a game of “how well do you know your early twentieth century British Royal Family?” With various members of the British Royal Family primarily used as the portraits on The “First Series” (with two exceptions) and denominations up to $1,000, we don’t fault you for not doing well at this game. I’m a Canadian Historian, and I couldn’t have named the face on the “First Series” Canadian 100 dollar bill.

The portrait on the “First Series” Canadian 100 dollar bill is Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester; the third son of King George V and Queen Mary. Don’t feel bad for not knowing this face on the Canadian 100 dollar bill. However, if you have a “First Series” banknote with Prince Henry’s portrait, you might have a banknote with up to $8,700. 

Fittingly, a Victorian-inspired allegory to commerce and industry was chosen for the reverse of the Canadian 100 dollar bill. This allegorical image was reused for the reverse of the “Bilingual Series” Canadian 100 dollar bill in 1937. However, a new face was chosen for the second most valuable banknote in the “Bilingual Series.”

The Bilingual Series

Canada’s problematic first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, moved from the “First Series” Canadian 500 dollar bill (that was a real thing, not a typo!) to the Canadian 100 dollar bill. This was not MacDonald’s last move to a Canadian banknote, eventually moving to the Canadian 10 dollar bill.

The Canadian Landscape Series

The “Canadian Landscape Series” of 1954 honoured Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to monarch, featuring the young queen as the portrait on the Canadian 100 dollar bill. This series eschewed the antiquated allegorical image of commerce and industry.

Keeping with the Bank of Canada’s directive to help foster a national identity on Canadian currency, the “Canadian Landscape” featured an image of the Okanagan Lake in British Columbia on the reverse.

In a different era, the Bank of Canada would have found some way to incorporate Okanagan Indigenous History and Culture from the Secwepemc and Syilx into this Canadian 100 dollar bill.

Maybe a sacred spirit like n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ (n-ha-ha-it-koo) that protects the Okanagan Valley. Potentially from beneath the waters of the Okanagan Lake themselves: the glacially created Okanagan Lake is home to Naitaka (n’ha-a-itk), now more commonly known as Canada’s most famous mythical lake monster, Ogopogo.

The Scenes of Canada Series

Sir Robert Borden replaced Queen Elizabeth II as the portrait on the Canadian 100 dollar bill on the beautifully designed “Scenes of Canada Series” Canadian 100 dollar bill.

The theme of this series expanded on its predecessor's intention and theme, including human activity into images of Canada’s wild and divergent environments. The reverse of the 1976 Canadian 100  dollar bill is an engraving of the legendary harbour at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. 

A collage of medical innovation

The 2011-13 “Frontiers Series” Canadian 100 dollar bill features a collage dedicated to medical innovation on the banknote's reverse. A nondescript woman peering into a microscope is joined by a DNA strand, an electrocardiogram reading of a healthy heartbeat, and a “faithful reproduction” of the earliest insulin bottles dating to 1923. 

Much like other Canadian banknotes – and most things, generally speaking – focus groups saw what they wanted in this Canadian 100 dollar bill. These focus groups claimed the original female figure was “Asian-looking,” noting the problematic ethnic stereotypes of Asians excelling in the STEM fields.

In contrast, others spoke for more inclusion of other ethnicities on the banknotes. In an era not too long before social justice activists could use social media to attempt to “cancel” anyone or anything for a perceived ethical transgression, the Bank of Canada self-cancelled the original image, opting for a more nondescript woman. 

Why insulin bottles? Because Canadian research scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered insulin and subsequently saved untold lives at their Toronto laboratory.

As is customary for new banknote launches, the Bank of Canada aims to find the most appropriate way to launch the banknote. Remember when they did it from space?

For the “Frontiers Series” Canadian 100 dollar bill, that means launching on World Diabetes Day (November 14) at the MaRS Discovery District at the Toronto General Hospital (close to the original Banting and Best laboratory). 

This edition of the Canadian 100 dollar bill was nominated for the 2011 International Bank Note Society Banknote of the Year award, losing to the stunningly-designed Kazakhstan 10,000 Tenge Note

About Sir Robert Borden

After making his debut as the portrait on the Canadian 100 dollar bill in the “Scenes of Canada” series in 1976, Borden continued his presence on the largest-value banknote Canada has to offer.

Sir Robert Borden was Canada’s Prime Minister from 1911-20. He is noted mostly for his leadership during the First World War, nationalizing railways (Canadian National Railway), introducing Women’s suffrage, and controversially using the North West Mounted Police to break up the 1919 Winnipeg General Labor Strike.

Borden’s colourized image and the tower from the East Block of the Parliament Buildings are featured in the anti-counterfeiting colour-shifting foil band on the banknote.

The most fierce and feared bird flying proudly on Canada’s largest value banknote

If I were to ask you what the most fierce or feared bird in the world is, I’d receive a bunch of correct answers: various eagles, hawks, and corvids from around the world. In Canada, we have all sorts of feared predators from the sky and cunning corvids to contend with.

However, for the “Birds of Canada” series, the Bank of Canada turned to the most feared bird in the country to grace the reverse of the 1986 Canadian 100 dollar bill: the Canadian Goose. 

Some of you may look at a patch on the shoulder of your jacket and think, “the bird this outerwear company took its name from? Really?” Yes.

If you doubt the ferocity of a Canadian Goose, you can try and approach an individual goose on the issue yourself. This is highly unadvisable, and you will quickly learn why the Canadian Goose is to be feared: not only will they beg for food, they’ll be highly aggressive and territorial, taking the food and making you run for safety at the same time! 

Clearly, approaching an entire colony of geese is off the table altogether. Don’t believe me? Ask the United States Air Force. 

Canadian geese versus the Air Force

On September 22, 1995, A United States Air Force Boeing E-3 Sentry crashed after engaging in a territorial battle with a colony of Canadian Geese in Alaska. Yukla 27 took off from Elmendorf Air Force Base, disturbing the geese. As the E-3 sentry began its departure roll, the Canadian geese infiltrated the aircraft's engines, causing catastrophic damage the crew could not recover from.

The result: the E-3 Sentry crashed into a wooded area less than a mile from the end of the runway, exploding and killing all 24 people onboard. While the colony of Canadian Geese could not survive the journey through the Boeing E-3 Sentry’s engines, they were powerful enough to take down the American Air Force. All the more reason to fear the Canadian Goose. 

It was a tragedy; birds and airplane engines do not mix and lead to disastrous consequences. 

No, really, why choose the goose?

Why choose the Canadian Goose for the Canadian 100 dollar bill? The Canadian Goose is found across Canada, regardless of the regional climate or longitude on the globe. This makes the Canada goose a perfect unifying symbol for building a sense of national identity on the country's largest denomination banknote.

Counterfeiting brings shame to the mighty Canadian goose

So, for many of you reading this, you might be too young to remember when people regularly carried large quantities of cash with them. That was before Venmo, Cash App, KOHO and credit cards were everywhere.

This means that many of our younger readers have never experienced the agony of trying to pay for goods with a Canadian 100 dollar bill and being rejected by the retailer.

True story: during my first stint at University directly out of high school, I worked the night shift at 7-11. We had a strict policy of not accepting any Canadian 100 dollar bills, regardless of what shift you worked.

Why? The losses associated with accepting a counterfeit Canadian 100 dollar bill are significantly higher than a counterfeit 10 dollar bill. This policy remained intact even when the bank of Canada issued a new Canadian 100 dollar bill.

The Canadian banknote series’ constant evolution is due in part to reflect the changing socio-cultural dynamics of the country and updated security measures. But counterfeiters will always find a way and capitalized on the older and out-of-date anti-counterfeiting measures and befouled the integrity of the mighty Canadian Goose in the process. 

That's not beer money

In 2001 the “Birds of Canada” series Canadian 100 dollar bill caused problems for retailers in Ontario and Quebec. A run of brilliantly conceived “funny money” found its way into circulation, causing a regional “ban” on accepting Canadian 100 dollar bills for, well, most things where large quantities of change are required. That means that beer and cigarettes, Canada.

This brought about a shift in how we interact with banknotes. The retailer ban on the Canadian 100 dollar bill remained for many businesses,7-11 included, even when the banknote was reissued with state-of-the-art security features. 

Despite our increasing reliance on cards, tapping, and digital payment methods, and the ability to dictate what denominations of banknotes you’d like to withdraw from an automated teller machine (ATM), the Canadian 100 dollar bill remains on the outside of the party.

At present, to get a physical Canadian 100 dollar bill, someone has to give it to you. And depending on the source, you might be more concerned about potential counterfeit bills and should exercise similar discretion as retailers in the early to mid-2000s.

Celebrating communication: from handwritten cartography and birchbark canoes to satellites

The “Canadian Journey Series” Canadian 100 dollar bill aimed to capture the country's historic journey in cartography and communications on a banknote. Sir Robert Borden and sepia tone colour returned for the “Canadian Journey Series” Canadian 100 dollar bill in 2004.

At first glance, this reverse of this banknote seems less-than-inspiring. However, a rich, rugged, and significant history of Canada lies under the surface. 

The main feature on the back of the Canadian 100 dollar bill is a map of Canada, with a telecommunications antenna and the Radarsat-1 satellite on either side of the map. To find the significant history, you need to look to the left and focus on the second map and birchbark canoe. Above the map and canoe is a passage from Miriam Waddington’s poem Jacques Cartier in Toronto, in both English and French.

A map and a canoe mean more than you think

So, what’s the significant history attached to this map and canoe? First, the map is representative of the first accurate coastal map of Canada created by Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec City and a significant figure in Indigenous-Colonizer relations in the early 1600s. Champlain learned the languages and fought alongside Indigenous allies (Wendat, Montagnais, Algonquin, and Innu) and produced the first ethnography of a North American Indigenous people. 

The birchbark canoe was the means of travel (and communication) for Canada’s Indigenous populations. The birchbark canoe was a significant tool for moving people, goods, and information for Indigenous people before the arrival of colonizers. These canoes took on an increased significance as the fur trade gained increased significance and became synonymous with the rugged life of the Voyageurs

I cannot do justice to the Voyageurs in this article, but I had the pleasure to count many great historians of Indigenous history, the Voyageurs, and the fur trade among my educators in graduate school. If you are interested in the incredible story of the Voyageurs, you can check out this 1964 NFB creation or the academic work on the Voyageurs by Dr. Carolyn Podruchny in Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade.

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