"I apologize to those who were offended — the Bank's handling of the issue did not meet the standards Canadians justifiably expect of us," Carney said in a statement.
"Our banknotes belong to all Canadians, and the work we do at the bank is for all Canadians."
The Canadian Press reported last week that the image of an Asian woman was purged from the original design after some focus groups in October 2009 raised questions about her ethnicity.
Some of the participants said the Asian woman did not represent Canada; some said other ethnic groups should be shown as well, says a report obtained under the Access to Information Act.
The small groups were based in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Fredericton, and were queried for the bank by The Strategic Counsel in a $53,000 contract.
By the end of 2009, an image of a Caucasian-looking woman was substituted in a move bank spokesman Jeremy Harrison said was to restore "neutral ethnicity." The original design never went into circulation.
Spokespersons for the Chinese Canadian National Council called the move "racist," and demanded the bank change its policies to stop "erasing" visible minorities from Canada's money.
On Monday, Carney called Victor Wong, the council's executive director, to discuss the apology.
"This is a win-win," Wong said, noting that the council appreciated Monday's statement. "I had a brief and cordial telephone conversation with Governor Carney ... and CCNC has offered to give input into the Bank of Canada review process."
Carney did not clarify whether the central bank intends to change its policies to allow so-called ethnic groups or visible minorities to appear on Canada's currency.
"It's too early for us to give details on what that would entail," said bank spokeswoman Dale Alexander.
Not everyone was satisfied with Carney's response, however.
"What's this 'apology' for?" asked May Lui, speaking for CCNC's Toronto chapter.
"For the appearance of the Asian looking individual on the draft note that circulated to focus groups? Or for the final image that appears on the note that we see today?"
Carney acknowledged that an early design for the new $100 polymer banknote, which began circulating last November, was a "'Photoshopped' image based on an original photograph of a South Asian woman looking through a microscope."
"South Asian" normally refers to people from India, Pakistan and neighbouring countries, while "Asian" refers to China and other countries in that region. It was unclear why the focus groups referred to an Asian when Carney claimed the photo was of a South Asian.
The bank said while that image was shown to eight focus groups in 2009, designers were already altering it electronically to ensure it did not resemble an actual person — suggesting the focus-group input had no bearing on the decision.
"The purpose of the focus group was for the basic conceptual model — the actual design of the note had not yet happened," said Alexander.
The bank has declined to say what specific changes it made to the image. Critics have said the Caucasian-looking woman does not have "neutral ethnicity," as the bank claims, but merely represents the dominant group in Canada.
A bank spokeswoman again refused a request by The Canadian Press for a copy of the original image, saying the bank does not release rejected designs.
Internal documents obtained by The Canadian Press show that the theme of medical innovations, partly illustrated by the woman researcher looking into a microscope, was originally to have appeared on the new $5 polymer banknote rather than the $100 bill. The reason for the switch was removed from the heavily redacted material.
A January 2010 bank briefing for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who must sign off on the final design for any new currency, said the October 2009 focus groups provided "overall positive responses to designs. (They) offered minor comments related to specific design elements." There was no reference to the Asian comments.
A marketing professor of Asian heritage, Ken Wong of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said Carney had no choice but to apologize given the public outcry.
"The person on the bill is a Canadian regardless of ethnicity; it (the image) should never have been changed," Wong said. "If Carney needs to apologize for anything, it is for being overly sensitive to political correctness run amok."
Wong said the bank should leave images of people off all bills, except for historic figures such as prime ministers.
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