The face of change

Merna Forster’s advocacy led to women being featured on Canadian currency.

Forster with Governor General David Johnston (far left).

Merna Forster (’76 BA) is a champion of women’s history and the advancement of their historical record into the hearts and minds of Canadians.

As a child, the southern Alberta native loved learning and reading about Canadian history, which was primarily stories of famous Canadian men. It was later, through her travels and work as a naturalist and civil servant with Parks Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage that Forster encountered important female historical figures like artist Emily Carr and E. Pauline Johnson — a woman who celebrated her Mohawk heritage in songs, poems and performances. This spurred Forster to create several invaluable historical resources: the website and two popular books, 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces and 100 More Canadian Heroines.

In 2013, Forster launched a petition in support of memorializing a Canadian woman on Canadian currency. The petition received 73,000 signatures, which not only swayed the Bank of Canada, but also — and perhaps most importantly — led to a national conversation about women and the historical significance of their contributions to Canada. Forster was appointed to a federal advisory committee along with three other women and two men to choose from the 26,300 names suggested by the public.

In 2012, Forster was the recipient of the University of Alberta Alumni Honour Award, and in 2016 she was the recipient of the Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media (Pierre Berton Award) for her long-fought and ultimately successful campaign to see women featured on Canadian currency. On Dec. 8, 2016, Forster saw her dream realized when Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz announced that black civil rights activist Viola Desmond will be the first woman featured on Canada’s $10 bill. For Merna Forster, it was the culmination of a career spent advocating on behalf of Canada’s history, and specifically, the role women have played in building this country.

*Update* On March 8, 2018, International Women’s Day, Viola Desmond became the first black person — and the first non-royal woman — to appear on Canadian currency.

For almost as long as there’s been a Canada, there’s been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we’re proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.

Originally published at on November 30, 2016