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CANADA’S SMALL DOLLAR MADE A BIG DEBUT

By Ed Reiter


History repeats itself, or so it has been said.

In some ways, it appeared to be repeating itself in Canada in 1987, when the Royal Canadian Mint started distributing a new, smaller $1 coin.

At first glance, the situation seemed to have numerous parallels with what happened eight years earlier – in the summer of 1979 – on this side of the U.S.-Canadian border.

That was the long, hot summer when the U.S. Mint formally introduced the Susan B. Anthony dollar.

In each case, a nation was asking its public to accept a new kind of dollar – a “mini-dollar” coin considerably smaller than any previous coin produced in that value in that nation.

In each case, economy and convenience were the government’s stated objectives: The new coin would be more economical to produce and easier to use than the large dollar coin it was replacing, and also cheaper and handier than thenation’s $1 bill.

In each case, mint officials were confident that the public would embrace the new coin.

The parallels even extended to the timing of the two coins’ introduction: The Anthony dollar made its debut on July 1, 1979, and the new Canadian dollar entered circulation almost exactly eight years later, in the final week of June ’87.

Without a doubt, the story line was familiar – almost a case of deja vu, as Quebec’s French Canadians might remark. Canadian Mint officials were quick to point out, however, that the actors were altogether different – as was the coin itself. And they expressed optimism that the critics would be kinder the second time around, and the story would have a far happier ending.

As things turned out, they were right.

“We’ve gone down the road in a bit of a different way,” a Royal Mint spokesman, Mike Francis, said at the time. “We've also had the benefit of your experience in the United States, and we’ve taken that into account in planning our program.”

Although there were strong conceptual similarities between the Anthony dollar and the new Canadian coin, there were major physical differences. Canada’s mini-dollar had 11 sides; the Anthony dollar was round. Canada’s coin was noticeably thicker than other coins encountered in circulation; the Anthony dollar was not (it also was almost never encountered in circulation).

Canada’s new dollar, made of bronze-plated nickel, had a golden-yellow color that distinguished it at once from other Canadian coins; by contrast, the Anthony dollar was identical in color – and in composition, too – to the U.S. half dollar, quarter and dime.

The Royal Canadian Mint began producing the new mini-dollar in mid-April 1987, following several months of test striking. Formal ceremonies weren’t held until May 7, but by then the presses already had been rolling for several weeks.

“July 1 was our target date for getting the coin to the public,” Francis explained, “so time was of the essence in starting production.”

The belated first-strike ceremonies took place at the branch mint in Winnipeg, where all the business-strike dollars were being produced. The principal speaker was Monique Vezina, Canada’s minister of supply and services, who struck the first ceremonial piece.

“This new coin is practical, convenient and, I think, very attractive,” Minister Vezina told a gathering of about 200 government officials and invited guests.

It was, she added, an excellent example of cooperation between government and the nation’s business and industry.

The government received particularly important cooperation and assistance from Sherritt Gordon Mines of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, which developed the unusual metal from which the new coin was being made. It was (and still is) an aureate-nickel material, which consisted of a brightly colored bronze coating bonded to a core of nickel. Sherritt Gordon Mines also was providing the mint with coin blanks.

Among the other dignitaries at the first-strike ceremonies were James Corkery, chairman of the mint’s board of directors; Mint Master Maurice Lafontaine; and Robert Ralph Carmichael, the artist who designed the new coin’s attractive reverse, depicting a Canadian loon.

Design is yet another area in which the Canadian coin had something important in common with its failed American cousin: In each case, the final design was altogether different from the one that was planned originally.

When the U.S. Mint decided a decade earlier to issue a small dollar coin, it asked Frank Gasparro, its chief sculptor-engraver, to come up with a suitable design. He responded by creating a stylized portrait of Miss Liberty based upon thefigure on the famed Libertas Americana medal from the nation’s formative years. He also prepared a reverse design featuring a soaring, majestic eagle.

Both of these designs drew critical acclaim, but Congress was hearing the beat of a different drummer – the insistent political pressure of special-interest groups, especially those involved with women’s rights. Bowing to the pressure, it decreed that the new coin should honor Susan B. Anthony, the pioneering feminist who spearheaded efforts to advance women’s rights in this country.

Gasparro sadly set aside his flowing-hair Liberty and crafted a new design with Miss Anthony’s likeness. But it totally lacked the warmth of the original – partly because the feminist’s physical features were sharp and somewhat stern and partly, perhaps, because Gasparro didn’t have his heart in the redesign. The soaring eagle went out the window, as well, when the government decided to keep the same reverse it was using on the Eisenhower dollar: a portrait of an eagle alighting on the surface of the Moon.

In itself, the Anthony dollar’s design wasn’t a primary factor in the coin’s overwhelming rejection. People were most upset by the size of the new coin: It was only slightly larger than the Washington quarter, and critics complained loudly that this could lead to costly mistakes. Still, there’s little doubt that its dour obverse portrait intensified people’s distaste for the mini-dollar and reinforced theirdetermination to shun it.

By contrast, the Royal Mint believed the Canadian coin would gain even greater acceptance because of its change in design.

Initially, the coin was scheduled to carry the same design on its reverse as the $1 coin it was replacing – the standard all-nickel dollar. This portrayed an Indian and a voyageur, or fur trader, in a canoe. Royal Mint officials scrapped that plan, however, after a pair of master dies disappeared in November 1986 while in transit from the mint’s headquarters in Ottawa to the branch mint in Winnipeg. Thedies had been intended for use in producing the small dollar coin and they featured the voyageur reverse.

Francis said the missing dies had not been found and the case remained under investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Even if the dies fell into the wrong hands, he said, it would be “very difficult” for anyone to use them to produce coins. Nonetheless, he added, the loss represented “a security breach” and therefore mint officials decided to change the design.

The loon, the new design’s dominant element, is a duck-like bird noted for its weird, distinctive cry. Canadian coins frequently have depicted native wildlife, and themes of this type generally have enjoyed wide popularity.

Carmichael, an artist from Echo Bay, Ontario, had submitted the design in 1978, in one of the contests regularly sponsored by the Royal Canadian Mint. Although it hadn’t won, the mint had retained it for possible future use. According to Francis, the mint maintained a “bank” of such designs from which it could draw if the need arose. Terrence Smith, a senior engraver on the Royal Mint’s staff, engraved the new coin.

Carmichael might well have been the happiest man in the room when the first loon dollar was struck at the Winnipeg Mint. He not only had the honor of seeing his work appear on a national coin, but also had the pleasure of knowing that his bank account was $5,000 higher. That’s the amount he received when mint officials decided to use his work.

The mini-dollar’s obverse originally carried the Arnold Machin portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The queen’s portrait was updated twice thereafter – in 1990, when the mint replaced Machin’s design with a version by Dora dePedery-Hunt, and in 2003, when it began using an effigy by Susanna Blunt. Unlike Machin, a British artist, both dePedery-Hunt and Blunt had the perspective of being Canadian.

The Royal Canadian Mint began “filling the pipeline” with loon dollars in mid-June 1987, Francis said. The mint expected to have 100 million pieces available by early July, and was shooting for a total first-year mintage of 300 million. By stunning contrast, mintages of the nickel $1 coin had been averaging only 2 to 3 million in typical years and the coin had seen little use in circulation.

The pure-nickel dollar came into being in 1968, when the Royal Mint removed the silver from what up until then had been a silver dollar. On a number of occasions since then, the mint had used the nickel dollar coin as a showcase forspecial designs. But, for the most part, it had carried the familiar voyageur portrait.

In a sense, the nickel dollar helped pave the way for the new mini-dollar by accustoming the public to smaller dollar coinage. The traditional silver dollar, Canadian-style, had been 36 millimeters in diameter and weighed about 23.3 grams. (It also had been only .800 fine, compared to the .900 fineness of traditional U.S. silver dollars.) The pure-nickel dollar was just 32.13 millimeters in diameter and weighed only about 15.6 grams.

The new coin was 26.5 millimeters in diameter – exactly the same as the Anthony dollar. Since it wasn’t round, its diameter was measured from point to point. At 7 grams, it was just a bit heavier than Canada’s quarter, which weighs 5.05 grams. However, it was discernibly thicker at the edges: Its maximum thickness was 2 millimeters, compared with 1.57 for the quarter. The Anthony dollar weighs 8.1 grams, the Washington quarter 5.67 grams.

Aside from the change in design, almost every other aspect of the new Canadian coin was planned in careful detail over a period of years. The Royal Mint began considering the idea of a mini-dollar coin in 1978 – just about the time the U.S. Mint was gearing up to issue the Anthony dollar.

“There are good reasons for introducing this new coin now,” Francis said.

For one thing, he noted, the Bank of Canada had been issuing an average of 300 million $1 bills every year, at an annual cost of $16.6 million. And, because they wore at such a rapid rate, they had to be replaced after only about a year in circulation. The new coins, by contrast, were expected to stay in use for 20 years – so while their initial cost was somewhat higher, they’d save the government money in the long run. According to Francis, total savings over the 20-year lifespan of the coins were expected to amount to $175 million.

Unlike the U.S. Treasury, which never curtailed production of dollar bills, the Bank of Canada was implementing plans to phase out paper dollars by the end of 1989.

Private enterprise, too, would benefit economically from the changeover, Francis said. As one example, he cited estimates showing that the Canadian Urban Transit Association would save $4 million per year.

A large part of this figure reflected the industry’s view that use of the coin would curb mechanical breakdowns. In 1985, local bus, streetcar and subway systems in Canada spent a total of $1.8 million processing dollar bills, whichfrequently clogged their fare boxes.

From the public’s standpoint, Francis said, the new coin offered the benefits of convenience – including the likelihood of better, faster transit service.

“It’s easier to carry than the current dollar coin and also much lighter than carrying four quarters,” he observed. “Beyond that, there are many, many uses for the coin.”

As part of its preparations for issuing the coin, the Royal Mint worked closely not only with transit officials but also with representatives of the vending industry and other groups likely to be affected by the move. These included theCanadian Council of the Blind and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, both of which endorsed the new coin.

In proceeding with plans for an Anthony dollar look-alike, Canada joined Great Britain and Australia. Britain was the first to issue such a coin. Its “round pound” first appeared in 1983 and soon supplanted the 1-pound bank notein circulation. Australia introduced a small dollar coin the following year.

Before suspending production of Anthony dollars in 1981, the U.S. Mint cranked out a total of 850 million. About half of them – close to half a billion – remained in storage at mint facilities and Federal Reserve banks in 1987, never having entered circulation. Not until the late 1990s was this stockpile finally depleted.

Gasparro suggested that the Mint could salvage the coins by plating them with brass-colored metal. That, he said, would remove the element of confusion. However, there had been no indication that the Mint might consider reopening the case, which generally was regarded in Washington as a great fiasco.

Meantime, north of the border, Canada’s small dollar was making a big debut. And Royal Mint officials were betting that in one very crucial respect, history would not repeat itself.

They were betting that they had themselves a winner – and in retrospect, after nearly a quarter-century of successful circulation, the “loonie” has proven them correct.

Unlike its American cousin, it has become a mainstay of Canada’s circulating coinage – and has even spawned a circulating $2 coin dubbed the “two-nie.”

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