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Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, holds the new Canadian $100 bill made of polymer in Toronto November 14, 2011.MARK BLINCH/Reuters

It's not often that the Bank of Canada finds itself scrambling to contain a controversy. When it comes to embarrassing gaffes, the government body in charge of setting interest rates and managing inflation is usually known for running one of the tightest ships in Ottawa.

But as Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney waded into the debate over the country's new $100 bill on Monday, it was clear the central bank was in damage-control mode.

In a rare step, Mr. Carney issued a public apology over the design of the banknote after documents were made public last week showing the bank edited out the ethnicity of a woman depicted on an early draft bill, following complaints from focus groups.

"This was not the Bank's intention and I apologize to those who were offended," Mr. Carney said in a statement. "We will be reviewing our design process in light of these events."

The controversy stems from an early draft of the banknote shown to focus groups in four Canadian cities.

The mock-up of the proposed design consisted of images and photos that would be used by an artist to sketch the final version of the $100 bill, including a photo of a scientist peering into a microscope who was of Asian heritage, the bank said.

However, by the time the final design emerged, the woman appeared to be Caucasian rather than Asian.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press show focus groups in Montreal and Charlottetown complained that the woman's Asian appearance on the bill was exclusionary and "contentious" since the banknote didn't represent other ethnicities.

However, the Bank of Canada appears to have been ensnared in one of its own policies. Mr. Carney said Monday the central bank seeks to avoid depicting actual people on banknotes (other than Prime Ministers and other famous figures) and the subsequent changes to the design resulted in the person's identity being changed to look Caucasian.

"Efforts by the bank note designers to avoid depicting a specific individual resulted in an image that appears to represent only one ethnic group," Mr. Carney said.

For all the duties handled by the Bank of Canada, such as setting interest rates and overseeing the economy, it is rare that the governor wades into controversies over currency design.

But after the allegations of the changed $100-bill emerged Friday, followed by a weekend of growing negative publicity, Mr. Carney swooped in and attempted to put an end to the debate, by announcing a review of the central bank's policies on currency design.

Victor Wong, national executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, called the situation unfortunate, but said it's too late to change the new $100 bill.

"We're not trying to be too tough on this," Mr. Wong said. "But maybe the bank needs to take a look at its policy. It's something for next time."

The new $100 banknote entered circulation in November, marking the introduction of polymer money to Canada, which is made of thin sheets of plastic that are harder to counterfeit and last longer than the cotton-based paper bills they replaced.

There are 310 million of the new $100 banknotes in circulation now, along with a polymer version of the $50 bill.

The new polymer $20 bill will emerge in May, 2013, followed by the $10 and $5 banknotes by the end of next year.


The Bank of Canada puts proposed banknote designs before focus groups across the country to "disaster check" them.

The results can be surprising. For instance, some people thought a DNA helix in the $100 banknote's science theme resembled a sex toy. Others thought they saw religious symbols in the drawing of the Peace Tower.

Some said the Canadian research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen on the $50 bill looked like a foreign ship, while others thought they saw an American flag aboard.

On the new $20-bill, a few mistook a sketch of the Vimy Ridge memorial for the World Trade Center's twin towers. Others were concerned about drawings of nude statues that are included in the memorial.

Grant Robertson