Let’s Put a Refugee to Canada on One of Our Banknotes

lotta-hitschmanova_large[1]“Please give generously to the Unitarian Service Committee, 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa 4.”

Can you perhaps recall hearing those words (spoken with a trace of an accent) somewhere way back in the mists of time? If so, then like me, I suspect you may have an ingrained awareness, deep in your grey cells, of why putting a refugee to Canada on one of our banknotes might be an idea worth considering.

As is well known, the Bank of Canada is committed to putting a woman’s image on one of our banknotes. It is my belief that, come 2018, humanitarian pioneer Lotta Hitschmanova, CC (1909-1990) would be an ideal person to appear on one of these banknotes.

Not because she was a woman, but because of her national and international impact and legacy, on its own terms. And because her image was, and is iconic, instantly recognizable, a valuable characteristic for a banknote image – and a symbol for all that is good about Canada and Canadian society. What will a $100 note look like with Lotta on it? Like this!

As you may recall, Dr. Lotta was a World War II refugee to Canada who made a lasting impact on her adopted country – making us a more compassionate and caring society – and she acted as a respected and revered Canadian ambassador around the globe.

From the 1940s to the 1980s, she helped educate and mobilize Canadians from coast to coast, putting the nation’s capital on the map – not just as a seat of government and political debate, but as a center for Canadian caring and concern for the rest of the world.

Hers is one of Canada’s most tragic and compelling refugee stories. Born in 1909 into a loving Jewish family in Prague, in the 1930s she studied political science and journalism at the Sorbonne and received her Ph.D. from Prague University in French literature. She became a journalist in Prague, was an outspoken critic of the Nazis, and had to flee her native Czechoslovakia after the Munich Pact of 1938.

“I experienced personally how much it hurts to be hungry. To be a refugee, to be without a home, to be without country, to be without friends. And this is something dreadful; you have no more roots, you have no one to turn to.”

For four desperate years she was forced to wander about Europe, eventually finding her way to Marseilles, where she offered her skills to help with refugee support groups.

She lost both her parents in the Holocaust, and in 1942, after a 46 day voyage on a converted banana boat leaving Lisbon, she arrived penniless in Montreal – “with an unpronounceable name” as she put it, feeling completely lost.

And yet just three years later, she became the founder and energetic leader of an organization to whose humanitarian mission she would dedicate the rest of her life: the Unitarian Service Committee (USC Canada).

Her work took her back to post-war Europe, and to Africa and Asia – to conflict zones and newly-independent nations, where the need was greatest. Long before the age of 24 hour newscasts, she urged Canadians – in their living rooms, community halls and church basements – to become aware of people’s living conditions far away, to take action and help.

“Charity begins at home…and then it goes on to embrace next door neighbours and all those who need help.”

Thousands of Canadians from all faiths and walks of life responded to the sincerity of her message, and became lifelong supporters.

Who can forget her distinctive Czech accent (and her unique uniform) during those TV and radio ads in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s? For many, USC’s address – “56 Sparks Street, Ottawa 4” – became the most recognizable address in the country.

Dr. Lotta’s influence went well beyond her work with USC Canada. Thanks to her tireless educational efforts over four decades, a solid foundation was laid for the Canadian public’s ongoing support for international humanitarian and development assistance. Every aid worker (including this writer), and every aid organization owes a deep debt to Lotta Hitschmanova’s ground-breaking work, as does the Canadian government’s own aid program, formerly called CIDA.

Dr. Lotta was also a champion and pioneer for women’s rights, skills and leadership training decades before this became a major concern for the international development community.

As Nova Scotia author Joan Baxter has put it: “It was Lotta Hitschmanova who shaped my values as a Canadian, and the type of Canada I believe in. She helped give us our identity.”

Dr. Lotta received countless awards and honours on four continents, including France, Greece, India, Korea and Lesotho. In 1979, she received the Royal Bank of Canada Award and $50,000, and she became a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1980. And in 1983, she was awarded the Rotary International Award for World Understanding for her life’s work, the third such recipient, following Pope John Paul II in 1982.

In 2007, the Canadian Museum of History included her as one of our “founders” in its Canadian Personalities Hall. And in 2013, when the Museum conducted a poll on who has shaped Canada’s history, Dr. Lotta received the most votes, ahead of Tommy Douglas, Terry Fox and Pierre Trudeau.

But perhaps Dr. Lotta’s greatest legacy remains in the deep, emotional reminiscences of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians, like you and me, who still remember her and what she stood for. That emotional connection across the country, and across all social spectrums, is something that only a very few Canadians have achieved.

In a real sense, she was Canada’s Mother Teresa – our 20th century “saint” – and perhaps the most recognizable Canadian woman in the 1940s through to the 1980s.

She would be an ideal person to grace one of our banknotes, I believe, and with her unique uniform, be instantly recognizable as a symbol for good, by hundreds of thousands, both here in Canada and abroad.

Seldom has a refugee had such an impact on Canadian society, and indeed around the world. A reminder that those we help today will be enriching our society, and helping many others tomorrow. The next Lotta Hitschmanova may soon be arriving in Canada. Let’s welcome them.

David Rain is a 64 year old Ottawa writer who worked with USC Canada for 22 years and is currently a volunteer with the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). The views expressed in this article are his alone.

Reference: Lotta, the Unitarian Service Committee Story, Clyde Sanger, Stoddart Publishing, Toronto, 1986.