The original image intended for the reverse of the plastic polymer banknotes, which began circulating last November, showed an Asian-looking woman scientist peering into a microscope.
The image, alongside a bottle of insulin, was meant to celebrate Canada's medical innovations.
But eight focus groups consulted about the proposed images for the new $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 banknote series were especially critical of the choice of an Asian for the largest denomination.
"Some have concerns that the researcher appears to be Asian," says a 2009 report commissioned by the bank from The Strategic Counsel, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
"Some believe that it presents a stereotype of Asians excelling in technology and/or the sciences. Others feel that an Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented on the banknotes. Other ethnicities should also be shown."
A few even said the yellow-brown colour of the $100 banknote reinforced the perception the woman was Asian, and "racialized" the note.
The bank immediately ordered the image redrawn, imposing what a spokesman called a "neutral ethnicity" for the woman scientist who, now stripped of her "Asian" features, appears on the circulating note. Her light features appear to be Caucasian.
"The original image was not designed or intended to be a person of a particular ethnic origin," bank spokesman Jeremy Harrison said in an interview, citing policy that eschews depictions of ethnic groups on banknotes.
"But obviously when we got into focus groups, there was some thought the image appeared to represent a particular ethnic group, so modifications were made."
Harrison declined to provide a copy of the original image, produced by a design team led by Jorge Peral of the Canadian Bank Note Co., which was a test design only and never made it into circulation.
Nor would he indicate what specific changes were made to the woman researcher's image to give her a so-called "neutral ethnicity." He said the images were "composites" rather than depicting any specific individual.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Canadian National Council slammed the bank on Friday for bending to racism.
"The Bank of Canada apparently took seriously ... racist comments and feedback from the focus groups and withdrew the image," said May Lui, interim executive director of the group's Toronto chapter.
"That was upsetting simply because of the history and longevity of Chinese-Canadians in this country."
Lui demanded the bank "acknowledge their error in caving to the racist feedback."
Victor Wong, the group's national executive director, called on the bank to amend its policy of not depicting visible minorities.
"You're erasing all of us," he said from Toronto. "Your default then is an image with Caucasian features."
The Strategic Counsel conducted the October 2009 focus groups in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Fredericton, at a cost of $53,000.
The Toronto groups were positive about the image of an Asian woman because "it is seen to represent diversity or multiculturalism."
In Quebec, however, "the inclusion of an Asian without representing any other ethnicities was seen to be contentious."
One person in Fredericton commented: "The person on it appears to be of Asian descent which doesn't rep(resent) Canada. It is fairly ugly."
Mu-Qing Huang, a Chinese-Canadian who has peered into microscopes for biology courses at the University of Toronto, called the bank's decision a "huge step back."
"The fact that an Asian woman's features were introduced to the bill ... I think itself is a huge step forward in achieving true multiculturalism in Canada," Huang, 24, said in an interview in Ottawa.
"But the fact that the proposal was rejected represents a huge step back."
She said the "overly sensitive" decision to remove the Asian features suggests prejudice against visible minorities persists in Canada.
"If Canada is truly multicultural and thinks that all cultural groups are equal, then any visible minority should be good enough to represent a country, including (someone with) Asian features."
Huang, now pursuing an MA at the University of Toronto, came to Canada from China with her family at age 12, living in Toronto and Ottawa.
The 2006 census found that Canada's population included more than five million people from visible minority groups, of which 1.2 million were Chinese and another 240,000 with ancestry from southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Laos.
The Bank of Canada introduced the new series of banknotes largely to thwart counterfeiters, though they are also expected to last much longer than the old versions. New $50 notes went into circulation in March, with $20 notes still to come in November.
The $50 and $20 banknotes feature a research icebreaker and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial respectively, with no images of ordinary Canadians. Some members of the focus groups said the Vimy memorial looked disturbingly like New York's twin towers, brought down by terrorists in 2001.
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