By Stephanie Poff
Have you ever wondered how the animals landed on our coins? We carry four iconic species with us every day – the Common Loon, the Polar Bear, the Caribou and Beaver. Let’s take a look into the past and learn a little more about how they got to be there.
The Beaver has been an established figure on our nickel since 1937. G.E. Kruger-Gray designed the image we see on the nickel every day. The Beaver was his muse, and we can hardly blame him. The Beaver was an important animal to Canadian history. During the fur trade, some 200,000 pelts were sold to the European market every year. In the 1930s, Grey Owl started a conservation movement to help save the mammal. Such an important animal to Canadian history deserves to take centre stage on our nickel as it has these many years. It was replaced for a short period of time between 1943 and 1945 for a Second World War victory emblem, and has been swapped out for special-edition coins now and then since.
When coinage was changed in 1937, the Caribou was originally planned for the five cent coin, the Beaver was planned for the ten cent coin, and the Bluenose was planned for the twenty-five cent coin. However, it was the Caribou that graced our quarter in 1937, designed by Canadian artist Emanuel Hahn. A good choice considering this majestic mammal is incredibly culturally significant to Canadians for thousands of years. Many Aboriginal peoples and Inuit relied on the Caribou for survival, providing food, clothing and even shelter. While the Caribou remains the steadfast animal to appear on the quarter, it has been temporarily replaced some years as well - chances are you’ve seen many commemorative designs on the quarter, some even featuring coloured ink.
The Canadian Government decided to introduce a new one dollar coin in 1987 and the art design was chosen from the coins predecessor, the silver dollar’s “voyager design” dating back to 1935. The new coin was to feature the voyager/fur trapper on the water in a canoe containing his furs.
After the master dies were struck with the “voyager” design and sent on their way to Winnipeg to begin production, the dies sadly went missing while in transit. Naturally, the fear of counterfeits being created made it impossible to use the design and they were forced to find an alternate design. Luckily, the mint had other submissions for the one dollar piece, and the Loon artwork, created by Robert-Ralph Carmichael, was chosen as a suitable replacement. The “Loonie” was born – out of pure chance - and has since become such an iconic piece of Canadiana. What would we call our dollar without the Loon on it?!
The Loon design isn’t that much of a departure from the canoe design when you really think about it, Loons are streamlined for swimming, as you can see by their sleek shape. Their legs are placed far back on their body, allowing for excellent movement in water. Loons have long been considered by many North Americans as beautiful and special, symbolizing wilderness and solitude. Many cottage-goers, campers, and vacationers would feel their trip was incomplete without seeing a Loon or listening to its haunting call.
When the two dollar coin was introduced in 1996, it wasn’t instantly branded as the “Toonie”. People weren’t sure what to call it; should the bear be referenced the way the Loon was? The “beary”? The Loonie just sort of became common place, and although “Toonie” is a part of our everyday language now, one very important suggestion never reached its full potential. It came from Jack Iyerak Anawak, Member of Parliament from Nunatsiaq, Nunavut, who suggested the name "Nanuq" (Nanook meaning Polar Bear) in honour of Canada's Inuit people and their northern culture. Unfortunately, this culturally meaningful suggestion went largely unnoticed beside the popular "Toonie".
FUN FACT: A competition to name the actual bear on the Toonie resulted in the name "Churchill", a reference both to Winston Churchill and to the common Polar Bear sightings in Churchill, Manitoba.
Species facts have been sourced directly from Hinterland Who’s Who species fact sheets on the Common Loon, the Polar Bear, the Caribou, the Beaver.
Coin facts sourced from Coinhistory.info/canada