My Canada, 49/150: Coins of the realm

Maple leaf. Beaver. Bluenose. Caribou.

Growing up, those were the backsides of the coins of Canada: penny (1 cent), nickel (5 cents), dime (10 cents) and quarter (25 cents).

Today, the penny is gone – no longer manufactured although, no doubt, still existing in jars in sock drawers across the nation. We’ve added two more to the bestiary: a loon on a one-dollar coin, known as the “loonie,” and a polar bear on the two-dollar coin, which quickly garnered the nickname “toonie.”

My father was a coin collector. He kept most of his treasures in a bank safety deposit box, bringing them out on occasion for a presentation he would give to a school class or community group. One evening when I was very small, and we were away from home for a couple hours, our house was robbed: dad had a couple cases of coins he had just acquired at home, not yet taken to the bank box. The thief ripped the coins out of their pristine, jewellery-box-like cases, and pocketed the coins for their face value. My dad was disgusted. “Don’t they realize the real value of these things?”

He taught me there are two kinds of valuable coins: the specially created commemorative ones and those intended to be in common circulation – “real coins” – but are rare for some reason. There may have been few cast, or there was some flaw in the casting quickly corrected, and that extra dot or missing line turned a flaw into fortune.

Dad liked collecting silver dollars although he never got near what’s considered the “holy grail”: a 1911 Canadian silver dollar. Only three samples of the coin were ever made – a lead one in Ottawa and two in silver in England. Two live in the Currency Museum in the Bank of Canada in Ottawa but the third silver coin is out there, somewhere.

There was supposed to be a regular run of these silver dollars, a new coin for Canada, produced for release in 1911. However, in May 1910, King Edward VII of England died. After King George V was crowned, coin-makers raced to get the new king on the coming year’s coins. At that time,  the Royal Mint in London created the master forms for all coins in the British Empire and shipped those to countries such as Canada, where they’d then be manufactured. Because of the sudden pressure to recreate every coin from all the empire countries, someone made the decision to not redesign and deploy the planned new Canadian silver dollar. It wasn’t until 1935 that a silver dollar entered into Canada’s regular currency collection.
Canada’s day-to-day coins, and a mind-boggling array of collector coins, are now manufactured at the Royal Canadian Mint in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Royal Canadian Mint started in Ottawa as a subsidiary of the Royal Mint in London in 1908, became wholly Canadian in 1931, and moved to its Winnipeg home in 1975.
Noted designers are often commissioned to create new coin designs to commemorate milestones in Canadian history. Artist Alex Colville designed the 1967 centennial coins sticking with the bestiary theme: from a penny dove to a dollar Canada Goose. My OCAD University colleague, illustrator Gary Taxali, was commissioned in 2012 to create a series of 25-cent pieces celebrating the ordinary milestones of life: new babies, birthdays, the tooth fairy, weddings, Canada Day, and winter holidays. He was the first designer to be allowed to alter the coin’s typeface, using his signature Chumply font. He was particularly happy with his design for “weddings” which is two entwined ring-shaped people not assigned gender – a nod to Canada’s laws allowing same-sex marriage.

My dad stopped collecting coins when I was a teenager. Toward the end of his life, he made coin banks inspired by the newer loonie and toonie; I still have my dad-made white polar bear “toonie bank”, with its plexiglass tummy, on the top of a bureau.

49 Toonie bank

I never inherited my father’s fascination with coins but one tic remains: when I empty my pockets or purse, I shuffle through the coins to see if there’s anything unusual. The other day I found a 1947 nickel; can a Victory Nickel be far behind?

Photo of Kelley Teahen and Gary Taxali at the launch of Letter Rip! Arts, Words and Toronto at Onsite Gallery, OCAD University: Courtesy snapd Downtown Toronto.

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