Now that the Euro is going strong (well, sort of), we can finally say that Canada has one of the world’s oldest independent currencies. First introduced to Britain’s North American colonies in 1853, the Canadian Dollar ($) has remained the basic unit of Canadian cash ever since.
Originally pegged to the British Pound Sterling, and then to the Gold Standard, since 1929 the dollar has been a so-called “free floating” currency with a value determined by the international marketplace and the policies of a government-run national bank known as the Bank of Canada. Broadly speaking, the Canadian dollar is roughly equivalent in value to a United States Dollar or European Union Euro, though the precise value obviously fluctuates. In the opinion of the International Monetary Fund, it is one of the world’s seven “reserve currencies” known for stability and reliability even in times of economic uncertainty.
A Canadian dollar is made up of 100 Canadian cents, and Canadians deal with their dollars and cents using a variety of metal coins and paper bills.
The Loonie is the one dollar coin, made of gold-coloured nickel. There used to be a one dollar bill, but it was phased out in the 1980s. It’s called a “Loonie” because it has a picture of a loon, the national bird of Canada, on one side.
The Toonie or Twoonie is the distinctive-looking two dollar coin made of two different colours of metal. It replaced the old two dollar bill in the mid-nineties. It’s got a polar bear on it.
The Quarter is the silver-coloured 25 cent piece. Four of them and you’ve got a dollar! It has a caribou, one of Canada’s beloved antlered animals.
The Dime is the 10 cent piece. It has a sailboat on it, the famous Bluenose schooner that was the fastest racing ship in the world for almost 20 years. You can watch a well-known video tribute to it here.
The Nickel is the five cent piece. It’s bigger than the dime! And it’s actually made of steel, not nickel! What’s that about? It has a beaver.
Lastly, there’s the copper penny, worth only one cent and featuring the famous maple leaf. In 2012 the Government of Canada announced plans to abolish the penny, but needless to say it’ll be a while before all the existing ones are taken out of circulation.
There are also a vast array of special collectable “designer coins” sold by the Royal Canadian Mint, which, although technically legal tender, are not made for actually buying stuff with. These include the Canadian Silver Dollar, the Half-Dollar, and many even more costly and implausible coins, such as the emerald and crystal encrusted $20 coin.
Canadian Paper Money
In contrast to the coins, which have remained pretty much unchanged since the dawn of the 20th century, Canadian banknotes, or bills, change a lot. Here’s how they look right now:
Canada’s smallest bill, the five, is blue and features a portrait of former prime minister Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919), the first French-Canadian to lead Canada. On the reverse, it features a salute to Canadian winter sports.
The purple $10 bill features a portrait of Sir John A. MacDonald (1815-1891), Canada’s first prime minister and founder of the nation. On the back there’s a touching “salute to peacekeeping” and Canada’s armed forces.
The $20 has an aged, green portrait of Canada’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926) on it. She used to be on the $1 and $2 bills too, back when those existed. The other side features a montage of some famous aboriginal artwork by the master Indian sculptor Bill Reid (1920-1998).
Canada’s red $50 banknote depicts William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950), the famously eccentric prime minister who led Canada through World War II (1939-1945) and much of the early 20th century. The reverse depicts the Canadian suffragette movement.
Last and most obscurely, we have the Canadian 100 dollar bill, featuring the face of Sir Robert Borden (1854-1937), who was prime minister of Canada during World War I (1914-1918). The back has a salute to Canadian exploration and cartography. A lot of shops in Canada won’t take $100 bills these days since they’re often counterfeit (or so many sceptical shopkeepers assume). Counterfeiting large bills is a bit of a serious problem in Canada, and helps explain why there aren’t Canadian $500 or $1 000 bills anymore.
The visual style of Canadian bills changes once every decade or so, though a gradual, staggered change beginning with the replacement of the $50 and $100 bills, and working down to the five. The current series you see above, known as the “Journey” series, was released in the years between 2004 and 2006, and has now completely replaced the old “Bird” series notes introduced in the early 1990s. In 2011, the Bank of Canada announced plans to begin phasing out paper money altogether in favor of new plastic bills.