By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
The date? February 19, 1996. The location? Ben’s Deli in Montreal. The plot line? The official launch of Canada’s new two dollar coin, the Toonie.
February 19 did not, however, represent the first official public announcement.
Officially publicized nearly a year prior on February 27, 1995 by the Minister of Finance Paul Martin, during his annual Federal Budget Speech. Shortly thereafter, Canada struck a $2-sized test token to act as a demonstration piece.
Even though this test token did not share any of the final design elements, it served as a proof of concept for the innovative bimetallic planchet locking system patented by the Royal Canadian Mint (RCM). While there is little publicly available information on how the RCM’s particular process works, it can be assumed it is relatively similar to how other bimetallic coins are produced. First, a hole is punched into the blank planchet, creating the outer ring. Next a second planchet, the inner core, has a groove milled into the edge. Finaly, when the coin press strikes, the two pieces will deform and lock together, creating a unified planchet.
The argument as to why Canada needed a new $2 coin was purely economic. While the standard $2 bill would survive in circulation for an average of only one year, the coins were estimated to survive for up to 20 years. Therefore, while it cost four cents to print the bills and 12 cents to strike the coins, the coins ended up being exponentially cheaper. In fact, according to Graham Esler, the former Chief Curator and Head of Currency at the Bank of Canada Currency Museum in Ottawa, the coins predicted savings of upwards of $180 million (USD) over by 2016.
In 1996, for the first year of issue, the Mint struck 375,483,000 coins. This massive issuance is over 75% larger than the second-largest issuance of 89,185,000 coins in 2012, and nearly 14 times larger than the average mintage of all succeeding years. Why? Was the new Toonie ultimately unsuccessful? No. Unlike the $1 coin, which also was intended to replace a paper version, this new coin was never produced concurrently with the bill. Instead, the Toonie replaced its paper counterpart in one fell swoop – thus necessitating such a large initial mintage.
The RCM began gearing up production efforts in order to fulfill the promised release of hundreds of millions of coins quite early. However, while the Mint had planned to deliver upwards of 60 million coins by the toonie’s release in early 1996, they were falling behind and it was evident that they would not be able to fulfill the order. To assist the RCM, the government contracted with the German firm Deutsche Nickel, to provide 10 million blank planchets. These coins are collected as a distinct variety, distinguishable from the standard 1996 issuance by the presence of machining lines across the both the ring and core as well as a dull/matte finish instead of the standard circulating finish. In circulated condition, however, it is almost impossible to identify these German Planchet types.
The coin’s standard design was struck without changes from 1996 until 2006 and featured an effigy of Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse designed by Dora de Pédery-Hunt. The reverse, created by Canadian wildlife and landscape artist Brent Townsend, depicted a polar bear. With an outer ring struck from 99% nickel and a core of 92% copper, 6% aluminum, 2% nickel, this original Toonie weighed 7.3g.
In 2006, a minor change was made when the date was moved to the top of the obverse design, and the Royal Canadian Mint logo placed on the bottom.
Later, the RCM announced a number of safety features intended to prevent counterfeiting on April 10, 2012. These included two pairs of laser-etched maple leaves, each within an inset circle at the bottom of the coin’s reverse design as well as two additional maple leaves set within a series of grooves at the top of the design. These virtual leaves change appearance depending on what angle you look at the design. An effect accomplished by laser engraving different patterns on each side of the grooves. Also, the intermittent edge reeding was replaced with lettering that spells out CANADA and 2 DOLLARS.
Another major change made to the Toonie in 2012 was its composition. The outer ring would be struck from multi-ply, nickel-plated steel and the core from a multi-ply, brass-plated aluminum-bronze alloy. According to the RCM, these multi-ply plated steel planchets emit a specific electromagnetic signature that is harder to counterfeit than standard coinage. It also has the added benefit of being cheaper than the previously used nickel.
Collectors may ask why Canadians call this coin the Toonie. It’s actually a portmanteau, or word that blends the sound and meaning of two other words. In this case, it combines the words “two” and “Loonie” – Loonie being the Canadian $1 coin’s nickname. “Toonie” became so popular that in 2006, the RCM trademarked it and even held a competition to name the polar bear. The name was chosen through an online public contest in which 166,635 votes were cast. “Churchill” won with 34%; the runner up “Wilbert” received 26%, and Plouf received 15%.
In addition to the original 1996 design of the $2 coin, the royal portrait update in 2003, and the new security reverse, collectors should be aware that the Royal Canadian Mint has used the $2 coin to issue a number of fascinating circulating commemoratives over the past 26 years. Some notable examples are:
1999 – Creation of the Territory of Nunavut
The first commemorative in the series, this coin was intended to celebrate the creation of the territory of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. This design depicts a highly animated Inuit drummer with the legend NUNAVUT below, written in both the Latin alphabet and the Inuktitut syllabary. Created by Inuk printmaker Germaine Arnaktauyok, the RCM struck 25,130,000 base metal and 4,298 specie examples. These two types differ in one design respect only: the circulation coins have a small, raised rim there where ring and core meet, while on the precious metal examples, this joint is smooth. There are, however, an estimated 3,000 mules, where a bullion coin die was accidentally used to strike circulation finish pieces intended for collector sets.
2006 – 10th Anniversary of the Toonie
In 2006, for the $2 coin’s 10th anniversary, Ontario artist Tony Bianco designed a new reverse polar bear tableau. In this design, the bear is gazing up at the Aurora Borealis. Unlike earlier commemoratives that constituted the entire mintage, or at least a majority, the RCM only struck 31,636 examples of this type. Simultaneously, they struck 25,274,000 standard issue Toonies.
2011 – 100th Anniversary of Canada’s National Parks
In 2011, the RCM contracted with Nolin BBDO Montréal, a creative advertising agency in Toronto ,to design the reverse of this celebratory Toonie reverse. This marked the first time an advertising agency was contracted to create a design for the Toonie series. Nolin BBDO submited a stylized depiction of a boreal forest. The RCM struck a total of 5,000,000 examples of this commemorative design, in addition to the standard circulation issuance of 22,488,000 coins.
2017 – Canada 150th Anniversary
To celebrate the nation’s 150th anniversary, Canada held a competition named “My Canada, My Inspiration”. The winning design (selected from five finalists) was created by Dr. Timothy Hsia. It depicts something Hsia considers to be “truly wonderful in the very sense of the word”, the Northern Lights, called the ‘Dance of the Spirits” by the native Cree people. Of the 10 million pieces struck, the 40% colored issuance marked a true milestone in numismatics. They are the first coins ever to be issued with glow-in-the-dark coloring. As such, these are worth between face value for circulated examples, and $5.50 USD for Uncirculated – roughly 30% more than the non-colored version of the $2 coin.
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).