A Mi’kmaw-owned pizza shop in Nova Scotia is turning away bills featuring Canada’s first prime minister after the grim discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools in the country.
In a social media post on Canada Day, the shop told customers it would no longer accept $10 bills featuring Sir John A. Macdonald. Macdonald’s government introduced residential schools in 1883 to assimilate Indigenous children and strip them of their culture.
“The discovery of bodies brought it more to the surface,” said Paul MacDonald, co-owner of Belly Busters Pizza and Donair in Membertou, a First Nation community of about 1,700 people on Cape Breton Island.
“It was always there, but that really opened people’s eyes now.”
MacDonald, who is also a Membertou band councillor, said many people who responded to his online post admitted they knew little about the architects of residential schools.
“That’s part of the reason I did it … to educate. At the same time, I’m educating myself,” he said.
Son of a survivor
MacDonald said his mother was forced to go to the residential school in Shubenacadie, N.S. She briefly talked to her son about the abuse she witnessed there before her death in 2004, he said.
He said the community of Membertou is full of people who have their own stories from the schools.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend the church-run, government-funded schools between the 1870s and 1997.
Many of the children were abused in a system described as a cultural genocide.
‘Better people’ belong on bills
MacDonald said there are plenty of other role models who could have their image on Canadian currency.
“We need to put better people on the bills, positive people,” he said, citing role models like Terry Fox or Carmen Young, an organ donation advocate from Cape Breton who died in 1992 at the age of 15.
“Moving forward, we can’t erase history, but we can definitely come up with a better future than a nightmare,” MacDonald added.
WATCH | 12-year-old walking across Nova Scotia to raise awareness about residential schools:
The Bank of Canada said it last featured Macdonald on banknotes issued in 2013 and 2017. They said the bills will continue to circulate until they are worn out.
A spokesperson confirmed it is up to sellers to determine the payment methods they accept for transactions.
In 2018, the federal government unveiled a new $10 bill featuring a portrait of Nova Scotian social justice icon Viola Desmond.
Staff can make their own decisions
Although he won’t be taking certain $10 bills at the cash register, MacDonald clarified in a subsequent post that he will allow his staff to make their own decisions.
“It’s up to them what they believe,” he said. “I never wanted to be political. It’s just for me and my beliefs.”
Wayne MacKay, a retired law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said he’s never heard of a business rejecting money because of the image on the note, but that doesn’t mean they’re not allowed to do so.
“In my understanding, it’s legal for someone to say that they won’t accept a certain kind of currency even though it is legal tender,” he said.
For an example, MacKay said many businesses stopped accepting cash during the pandemic to keep workers from having to handle money, while others are now accepting forms of digital currency.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.