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The new Canadian $5 and $10 bills, made of polymer, are displayed with the previously released $20, $50 and $100 notes following an unveiling ceremony at the Bank of Canada in Ottawa in 2013.Chris Wattie/Reuters

Apart from the Queen on the $20 bill, the people on the front of our paper money are all male – for the not-so-compelling reason that the honour was until now confined to long-dead prime ministers. When the Bank of Canada adds a female face in 2018, it will achieve one of those rare symbolic acts that actually provide daily resonance – assuming we're still using paper money by then.

Such public gestures have meaning. But at some point, feel-good abstractions have to shift from the general to the particular – and this is where the search for the iconic Canadian woman will become contentious.

The men on our banknotes got there by passing a simple test: Holding the highest political office, for a long time, a long time ago. That didn't make them perfect representatives of Canada or unreservedly good people – and yet we accept that their electoral eminence justifies a leading role on the currency.

In selecting a women for a new bill, what traits and talents do we want? The Bank of Canada's awkwardly worded criteria require nominees to have "demonstrated outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field, benefiting the people of Canada or in the service of Canada." They must also have been dead for at least 25 years, which means we can't conveniently outsource the decision-making to the Nobel Prize judges and simply rubber-stamp Alice Munro.

Setting aside what it means to benefit or serve Canada, Canadians and the bank's inner circle of selectors will still face arguments over the definition of achievement and distinction. Which achievements matter most? Should emphasis be placed on achieving a breakthrough for women in what were once traditional male fields – medicine, science, politics?

And because we're dealing with historic figures, thornier problems of context and judgment are going to surface. Sir John A. Macdonald, who glares solemnly from the $10 bill, gets a pass for being corrupt, a drunk, a racist by modern standards and the ultimate executioner of Louis Riel because he was the first prime minister – and contemporary moral standards can't alter that achievement.

But Nellie McClung, a leading contender for bank-note glory, was simultaneously a suffragette and an advocate for eugenics. So do we conveniently look the other way, or accept the fact that our female icons, just like their male counterparts, come from a complicated, flawed past, where they were just as human and fallible as the men they're poised to replace?

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