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Collecting Canadian Coins
By Alan Herbert
June 15, 2012

Excerpted from Warman’s Coins and Paper Money, 5th Edition by Arlyn G. Sieber, available from


When official coinage was finally struck by the various pre-confederation colonial provinces they had already recognized slightly different standards, sometimes as much as a 20 percent difference in value. The first coins struck in the name of Canada were produced by the Province of Canada. This was the collective name for Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec). Bronze cents and silver 5-cent, 10-cent, and 20-cent pieces were struck in 1858-1859. In the intervening years before these two provinces combined with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to form the independent Canadian confederation in 1867, all of them had struck their own coins. Despite this complexity of coinage, a shortage of small change still persisted. Neither bank tokens nor poorly made “blacksmith” counterfeits could be suppressed.

During the U.S. Civil War, when American silver coins were being discounted relative to gold, some Canadian firms bought them in quantity and imported them. Unfortunately, it soon became the tool of scams, whereby they were paid out at par but taken for deposit only at a discount.

Finally, in 1869-1870, a three-step program was devised to cure this dilemma. The U.S. silver was bought up, and $4 million worth was sent back south. An order was placed with the Royal Mint for millions of new sterling-silver Canadian 5-cent, 10-cent, 25-cent, and 50-cent pieces. Last, a temporary issue of fractional paper money redeemable in gold was released to make do until the new coins arrived. (This small paper money proved so popular that it continued to be issued until the 1930s.)

The new Canadian silver coins, nominally valued at one U.S. dollar worth of gold per Canadian dollar, were struck in quantity except during the depression of the late 1870s. They were supplemented by a large initial issue of cents in 1876. These were slightly heavier than the province’s old cents and continued from 1881 onward. The standards for cents and silver remained unchanged until World War I.

During the 1800s, Canadian coins were struck at the Royal Mint in London and sometimes by contract at the Heaton Mint in Birmingham, England. In 1908, after years of agitation, a branch of the Royal Mint was opened in Ottawa. With it came the ability to mint the gold being mined in Canada into internationally recognized British-designed sovereigns. Soon after that, a domestic gold coinage was initiated.

Basic designs for most Canadian coins remained fairly stable from the beginning until 1937, but many smaller changes occurred as needed. Of course, with the passing of each monarch, a new royal portrait was designed — one for Edward VII in 1902, another for George V in 1911. The gold sovereigns used bareheaded busts instead of crowned ones to match their British counterparts. There was a bit of a ruckus in 1911 when the new obverse of George V lacked the Latin phrase Dei Gratia (“by the grace of God”). The mint responded to the public outcry and added the phrase the following year.

World War I and its aftermath resulted in more modifications. The large cent was replaced in 1920 by a small cent, and in 1922, the silver 5-cent piece was replaced by a nickel 5-cent. Both were similar in size to their American counterparts. Also, because of wartime increases in silver prices, the precious metal content of silver coins was reduced from 92.5 percent (sterling) to 80 percent in 1920.

The entire visual style of Canadian coins began to change in 1935, when a new, artistic commemorative silver dollar for the jubilee of George V was released. It depicted the now famous design of a fur trapper and an Indian paddling a canoe. When the obverses were changed to portray the new King George VI in 1937, all of the smaller denomination reverses were redesigned with creative and distinctly Canadian motifs. The cent was given a more naturalistic sprig of maple leaves, the 5-cent a beaver on its dam, the 10-cent a schooner, and the 25-cent the bust of a caribou. The 50-cent coins displayed a more conservative coat of arms. Because of the time taken to design the new coinage, some 1936-dated coins were struck in 1937.

Their design included a minute dot to distinguish them. These are quite rare. The reverses introduced in 1937 continue in use today with some alteration. World War II brought more changes to Canadian coins.

Shortages of nickel caused the 5-cent piece to be struck in a brass alloy called tombac and later in chromium-plated steel. It was finally restored to its nickel composition in 1955. A special reverse design — a torch superimposed on a V for victory — was used to boost wartime morale. Because of the time taken to modify the royal titles to reflect the independence of India, some 1947 coins were struck in 1948 with a tiny maple leaf after the date. Although not rare, these are quite popular among collectors today.

No monarch has had as many different portraits on Canadian coins as Elizabeth II. The first portrait, designed by Mary Gillick, had some minor difficulties in striking and, as a result, was subtly modified after being placed in production. In 1965 a new bust wearing a tiara was introduced, years before Britain itself began using it. When a more mature depiction of the queen was desired, the Canadian choice differed from that of Britain for the first time. A design with an open crown, by Canadian artist Dora de Pédery-Hunt was used beginning in 1990. It was replaced in mid-2003 by a bareheaded, grandmotherly portrait designed by Susanna Blunt.

The centennial of Canadian independence was cause for issue of some of the country’s most beautiful and dignified wildlife coins. Animals emblematic of Canada shown against stark, open backgrounds were portrayed on the reverses of the 1967 issues, along with a gold $20 piece with the national arms. Unfortunately, rising silver prices forced these animal coins out of circulation. In mid-year, the 10-cent and 25-cent pieces were reduced to 50-percent silver, and beginning in 1968, pure nickel replaced all circulating silver.

Throughout the 1970s to the 1990s, various modifications were made to reduce the expense of producing coins, which were no longer tied to their intrinsic value. The cent went through several modifications in weight and shape before it was switched to copper-plated zinc in 1997. It was later supplemented by issues in copper-plated steel. In 1982, the 5-cent piece was changed from nickel to cupronickel, then to nickel-plated steel in 2000, along with the 10-cent, 25-cent, and 50-cent pieces. New $1 and $2 coins were introduced to save the expense of producing less durable paper money. A small, golden, bronze-plated nickel dollar depicting a swimming loon was introduced in 1987. In 1996 a $2 coin depicting a polar bear and composed of a nickel ring surrounding an aluminum bronze center followed.

Today these two coins are popularly known as the “loonie” and “toonie” respectively. Since the 1970s Canada has had an extensive collector-coin program, with several different designs in various precious metals offered in quality strikes each year. Some of these had limited mintages and are quite scarce. Others, however, particularly those of the 1970s, are so common that they are frequently melted for scrap. Some of the more unusual pieces are the silver aviation series, which boasts a small portrait inlay of gold. This decade also saw the old cellophane-packaged prooflike sets supplemented with the more market-oriented cased proof sets.

Circulating commemoratives were struck for the 125th anniversary of the Canadian confederation in 1992. Most coins just bore the “1867-1992” legend, but a popular series of 25-cent coins bore reverses emblematic of each province and territory. A dollar depicting children before Parliament was issued as well.

Canada is one of the world’s richest nations in terms of precious metals and for years has produced some of the world’s most popular bullion coins. Silver 1 ounce, gold 1/20-ounce to 1 ounce, and platinum 1/20-ounce to 1 ounce pieces are struck with an intricate and difficult-to-counterfeit maple leaf design on the reverse.


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