My Canada, 55/150: Canada’s other currency

I have an inch-high wad of money sitting in my letter tray. But given that it’s mostly five-cent bills, it’s worth a whopping $10.90.

In these days of points cards for everything from movies to motor vehicles, it’s hard to appreciate just how radical was the launch of Canadian Tire money in 1958.

Canadian Tire began in 1922 when the Billes brothers, John and Alfred, bought the Hamilton Garage and Rubber Company, renaming the business “Canadian Tire” in 1927. They were early adopters of a franchise business model: they created the concept of the dealer-owner, who would own his store and purchase merchandise from the parent company. By 1940, there were 105 such stores in Canada.

Alfred’s wife, Muriel, is credited with conceiving the Canadian Tire  “money” loyalty program: Customers got coupons worth four per cent of their purchase, which could then be spent at the store. The first coupons featured a smiling cartoon tire and dollar sign running hand-in-hand, along with the triangular corporate logo. According to the Canadian Tire corporate website, in 1961, the coupons got currency game: Employee Bernie Freeman designed Sandy McTire, an avuncular Scotsman, who has been featured ever since, and the coupons started “to be printed on genuine bank note paper [made from cotton] by the British American Bank Note Company.”

 Before Canada introduced polymer bank bills over 2011 to 2013, you could not tell the difference, by feel, between Canadian Tire coupons and actual Canadian money. When I was growing up, people began to accept Canadian Tire money as payment for things, or collect Canadian Tire money in charity drives so they could purchase useful and needed items among the gazillion items you could find in a Canadian Tire store. The company reports there are $1 billion of the bills in circulation – that’s more than the annual budget for the Canadian Yukon Territory.

The store started in automotive and still is a major player in that realm, expanding to include service garages and gas stations. As the stores multiplied across the country, it also became the go-to spot for bicycles and sports equipment; many a happy birthday began with shrieks of joy at finding a Canadian Tire CCM bike among the presents, a nostalgia captured in a 1990 advertising campaign.

56 Canadian Tire bicycle mural

The controlling share of Canadian Tire is still owned by one of co-founder Alfred Billes’s children, Martha Billes. How that came to be is a wild tale of operatic-style drama covered in two books: 1989’s Freewheeling: The Feuds, Broods, and Outrageous Fortunes of the Billes Family and Canada’s Favourite Company by Ian Brown and 2001’s Can’t Buy My Love: How Martha Billes Made Canadian Tires Hers by Rod McQueen.

I found some statistics on a website of mysterious origin called “Reference for Business”. It says this about Canadian Tire and, if it isn’t verifiably true, it certainly sounds believable: “About 85 per cent of all Canadians live within a 15-minute drive of a Canadian Tire store; nine out of 10 adult Canadians shop at one of these outlets at least twice a year; and 40 per cent of Canadians shop at Canadian Tire every week.”

56 Canadian Tire
A Canadian Tire first opened at this spot on 837 Yonge Street in Toronto in 1937. The site remains an associate store in the company to this day. Photo: Kelley Teahen

The ubiquitous presence of Canadian Tire in this country is hard to grasp if you don’t live here. There are more than 500 stores, now, from urban cores to small town main streets. Tire goes flat on a Sunday morning? Canadian Tire. Driving to the cottage and realize you forgot to pack your water shoes? The next town will have a Canadian Tire. Need a garden hose? A slow cooker? A wrench set? WD-40? Pull out your wad of Sandy McTires, and roll on over to Canadian Tire.

All photos: Kelley Teahen


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