Canada's Prime Ministers: Show Me the Money

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When the role of Canada's Prime Ministers is examined using historical thinking skills, it is clear that they've had a profound impact on the evolution of the nation. In order for students to understand the historical significance of key Canadian Prime Ministers on the social, political and cultural identity of Canada as a nation, students are to examine the 4 prime ministers on our currency in detail, and create a criteria for which Prime Minister is worthy of appearing on a new $500 bill. Before the establishment of the Bank of Canada, any major bank could issue their own currency, usually with the likeness of the current monarch and/or spouse, but would often use images of bank presidents or other members of the Monarch's family.

The earliest Canadian bank note containing an image of a prime minister is a $5000 note from 1896, containing an image of Sir John A. MacDonald, five years after his death. When the Bank of Canada was created in 1935, their first series of bank notes issued that year contained the images of Sir John A. MacDonald on the $500 note and Sir Wilfred Laurier on the $1000 note. This $500 note was the only one ever issued by the Bank of Canada. Two years later, bank notes became bilingual with the Bank of Canada periodically changing bank notes to thwart counterfeiters. The 1954 series contained only images of the Queen on all denominations and no Canadian Prime Ministers. It was for the 1969-79 series of bank notes that the decision was made to use images of former Prime Ministers instead of the Queen on all denominations. The finance minister, Edgar Benson, directed that the notes should feature Canadian Prime Ministers to reflect Canada's growing national identity-- thus setting the theme for all future notes.

The Bank of Canada Act states that any changes to the currency must be approved by the Minister of Finance. The three primary criteria that the Bank of Canada used to select the Prime Ministers on the bank notes were that: they held office for a relatively long period of time; they made a significant contribution to Canada; and they were deceased with a period of time elapsing, following their death, before consideration was given to placing their image on a bank note.

With more recent series, Canadians were consulted, for the first time, as to what images they would like to see; there was even discussion at the Bank of Canada to have images of famous Canadian inventors and artists, instead of images of prime ministers, but at the time, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien decided to keep the prime ministers on the currency.

Part One: Discussion & setting the historical framework: Ask the class which characteristics are needed to be a great prime minister; write these traits on the board. Find and show primary documents such as political cartoons of prime ministers, so students will understand historical context and compare these to the images on currency in order to see different perspectives. Students will see how opinions of prime ministers have changed over time and be able to assess their legacy.

Part Two: Research & Analysis: In groups of 3-4, students should research the four prime ministers on bank notes, specifically, and also other prime ministers for comparison. In a written analysis, students will evaluate why Sir John A. MacDonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir Robert Borden, and William Lyon Mackenzie King are the only prime ministers featured on our currency through researching the accomplishments of these Prime Ministers and others.

Part Three: Set Criteria: Based on their research and evaluation of Canada's Prime Ministers, students will create their own criteria for why a Prime Minister would appear on a Canadian Bank Note. Based on their own criteria and further research, students will decide which other Prime Minister should be added on a new $500 Canadian bank note.

Part Four: Pick the new Prime Minister: In a written analysis, using their criteria, students will use evidence and examples from their research to provide rationale and support for the selection of their Prime Minister's image for the new $500 bill. Part Five: Draw the $500 bill: Students will create and design a $500 bank note with the image of their chosen Prime Minister and any other related designs or graphics.

Extension Activity: Students create and design the other side of their $500 bank note with images that they believe best exemplifies Canadian identity: the fundamental values cherished by Canadians; Canadian culture and diversity; and/or achievements. 

Suggested Resources:

On-line Resources for Teachers:

The Art and Design of Canadian Bank Notes
Complete Bank Note Series
Bank Note Image Gallery 
Canadian Primary Sources for the Classroom

Selected Print Resources for Students:

Baldwin, Douglas, and Patricia Baldwin. The Trudeau Era. Calgary: Weigl, 2007. Print.

Boutin, Lanny. John Diefenbaker: The Outsider Who Refused to Quit. Toronto: Jackfruit, 2006. Print.

Brown, Jacqueline. Sir John A. Macdonald: The Rascal Who Built Canada. Toronto: Jackfruit, 2005. Print.

Cline, Beverly Fink. Contemporary Canada. Calgary: Weigl, 2007. Print.

Gibb, Gordon R. Lester B. Pearson: The Geek Who Made Canada Proud. Toronto: JackFruit, 2006. Print.

Hendley, Nate.  Jean Chrétien: The Scrapper Who Climbed His Way to the Top. Toronto: Jackfruit, 2005. Print.

Hendley, Nate. William Lyon Mackenzie King: The Loner Who Kept Canada Together. Toronto: JackFruit, 2005. Print.

Heather Grace. Kim Campbell: The Keener Who Broke down Barriers. Toronto: JackFruit, 2007. Print.

Stewart, Heather Grace. Sir Wilfrid Laurier: The Weakling Who Stood His Ground. Toronto: Jackfruit, 2006. Print.

On-line resources for students:

Prime Ministers of Canada 
Prime Minister's Office- Prime Ministers of Canada
Biographies of Prime Ministers of Canada

LESSON RESOURCES: (Click on the link)

Student Handouts
Detailed Rubrics

Canada's Prime Ministers: Show Me the Money

Sabha Ghani


Burnaby, British Columbia

In this project, students analyze the prime ministers on our currency and pick a new one to go on a new $500 bill.

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