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What would a $20 bill look like if it had an Indigenous woman front and centre?

Margaret (Pictou) LaBillois served during the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division as a photo reconnaissance technician.

For Mi’kmaw artist Tracey Metallic, the late Margaret (Pictou) LaBillois is one of her heroes.

That’s why she chose to feature her in a design challenge to re-imagine Canadian banknotes with inspirational Indigenous women.

The project, Change the Bills, is being run by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) as a way to promote the contributions and accomplishments of Indigenous women.

“There’s so much that this woman has done and contributed not only for her community, but for all First Nations,” said Metallic, who is from Listuguj in the Gaspé region of Quebec.

LaBillois, who died in 2013 at the age of 89, was from Eel River Bar First Nation (Ugpi’ganjig) in New Brunswick. She joined the Royal Canadian Air Force women’s division during the Second World War and served as a photo reconnaissance technician. She mapped the Alaska Highway, a wartime construction project that connected Alaska to the rest of the United States through Canada.

She later became the first woman to be elected as a chief in New Brunswick and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1996 for her leadership and dedication to the revitalization of the Mi’kmaw language and culture.

The $20 banknote of Margaret (Pictou) LaBillois designed by Mi’kmaw artist Tracey Metallic. (NWAC)

“Anybody that had the privilege of meeting her, she left an impact on that person,” said Metallic.

“Her heart was so open, gentle, kind. She just she just had a universal knowledge.”

Using art to raise awareness

Irene Goodwin, NWAC’s director of policy and programs, culture and art, said the Change the Bill project is a way to raise awareness of the contributions of Indigenous women to Canadian history and society. Nine Indigenous artists were commissioned to produce work that is on exhibition in Toronto.

“Canada has been printing money for over 150 years, and in that time an Indigenous woman has never been featured on the Canadian banknote,” said Goodwin.

Indigenous people have been represented on Canadian banknotes only a handful of times. As a part of the Scenes of Canada series, which was in circulation between 1969 and 1979, the $2 bill depicted six Inuit men preparing their kayaks for a hunt and was based on a photograph taken by documentarian Douglas Wilkinson of the Idlout family.

In 2017, to celebrate the 150th year since Confederation, the $10 banknote featured James Gladstone who was the first indigenous person to serve in the Canadian Senate.

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