The loonie, a Canadian touchstone, is turning 20
Published Wednesday, June 27, 2007 4:45PM EDT
OTTAWA - The loonie coin, the dollar which should never have been, first clinked into Canadian pockets 20 years ago this week.
On June 30, 1987, the first 80 million shiny, bronze-coloured loonies began to go into circulation, sounding a tinkling death knell for the old green-and-white $1 bill.
The ubiquitous loonie, which has become as much a part of the Canadian fabric as the Maple Leaf or Tim Hortons' rollable rims, wasn't actually supposed to happen.
The original design for the $1 coin featured a voyageur canoe, much like the one that graced the silver dollar coin for years, says Pam Aung Thin of the Royal Canadian Mint.
"The original master dies were lost in transit," she said.
Somewhere between Ottawa -- where the dies were engraved -- and Winnipeg -- the production facility -- they disappeared. The courier looked. The Mounties looked. They never found them.
The mint feared that counterfeiters, working with the master dies, might be able to flood the country with bogus bucks.
"The government authorized a new design, which was of course the loon -- and the rest is history," Thin said.
The coin, with its iconic loon -- created by Ontario artist Robert-Ralph Carmichael -- on the reverse, has become a symbol for Canadians and has become synonymous with the Canadian dollar.
It wasn't always that way. Its name was first used in scorn. Polls showed people weren't taken with the replacement for the familiar one-spot.
The United States has twice tried unsuccessfully to introduce a $1 coin, but never managed to win public acceptance
In Canada, though, the government phased out the $1 bill between 1987 and 1989, leaving people no choice.
"That was a big factor in terms of Canadians accepting the $1 coin," Thin said. "We did in fact phase out the $1 note at the time -- we did the same thing with the two-dollar coin as well, which was introduced about 11 years ago.
"It gave Canadians and the retail industries, especially those which handle large amounts of cash, a chance to adjust."
Now, of course, the loonie is, well, the loonie. There are those who gripe about overstuffed coin purses, others who see the loonie as a plot to ruin pant pockets and enrich the tailoring industry. The move to rename piggy banks as loonie bins never really caught on.
But its influence remains. The $2 coin took its nickname -- the toonie -- from the original.
And the $1 coin is still called a loonie even when there's no loon.
The mint has produced a half-dozen loon-less versions of the coin, including a 1992 dollar commemorating the 125th anniversary of Confederation, a 1994 Remembrance Day coin, the 1995 peacekeeping loonie and the 2005 Terry Fox.
The coin was brought in as a cost-saving measure. A paper dollar wore out within a year, while a coin would last 20 years. The government figured it could save up to $250 million over 20 years by striking coins instead of printing bills.
Rather than just ramp up production of the old silver -- actually nickel -- dollar coin, it was decided to produce a coin that was smaller and distinctive.
The result was the loonie, a seven-gram, 11-sided disk -- technically a hendecagon -- 26.5 millimetres in diameter and 1.75 millimetres thick.
It's 91.5 per cent nickel with a plating of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin which gives it its distinctive colour.
So far, the mint has produced 800 million loonies. Stacked up, they would make a pile 1,400 kilometres high weighing about 5.6 million kilograms.
Over the years, the loonie has even become something of a good-luck charm.
Before the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Canadian icemaker Trent Evans embedded a loonie at centre ice.
The Canadian men's and women's hockey teams both went on to win gold medals and afterwards, Wayne Gretzky of Team Canada, dug the coin out. It's now in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
It's said that other international hockey teams now scan centre ice suspiciously for any sign of buried Canadian mojo.
The mint promotes the legend with specially designed "Lucky Loonies" issued each Olympic year. Two new loonies are to be released in commemoration of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the first next year and the second in 2010.
And the biggest loonie? Well that's in Echo Bay, Ont. It's a roughly four-metre, fibreglass replica erected by the community in a tribute to Carmichael, the original designer, who lives nearby.