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.
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.
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.