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Oh, Canada: Canadian Coins A “Natural” Alternative to U.S. Coins – Pt. I

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek….
If you’re like me, you hang onto every Canadian coin you find in circulation because they look so different from U.S. coins.

canadian19thcAnd while it seems that some of my non-numismatic friends view Canadian coins as something of a nuisance, I say that the coinage of Canada offers a bounty of beautiful designs and unique coin collecting opportunities.

I’m sure I echo the opinion of many fellow numismatists. After all, what’s not to love about the beautiful, largely nature-inspired designs of Canada?

A Brief History of Canadian Coins

Interestingly, money in both Canada and the United States shares a common background. As was the case in the United States during the late 18th century and the first decades of the 19th, the Spanish dollar circulated unofficially in Canada and was used widely in trade. As part of the British Empire, Canada also circulated tokens and coinage imported from Great Britain. Barter and the fur trade also supported commerce early in Canada’s history.

Trade with the United States increased during the 19th century, so the Canadian colonies wanted to replace the British-based sterling system with the same decimal system used in the United States. Our neighbors in the Great White North authorized their current coinage system in 1858–some 65 years after the U.S. Mint struck its first official coin. The first coins struck for the Province of Canada include the 1858 and 1859 bronze large cents and a few silver denominations, including the five-cent coin, the dime, and the 20-cent piece (all initially struck only in 1858). Further silver coinage wouldn’t be produced until 1870, when the half-dollar was also introduced. The next copper cents wouldn’t see release until 1876.

The first Canadian silver dollars weren’t struck until 1935.

While Canada’s decimal system might resemble the United States’, the obverse designs customarily take a numismatic bow (or curtsey) before the reigning occupant of the British throne. Queen Victoria was the first monarch to appear on official Canadian coins, followed in royal succession by Kings George IV (from 1902 through 1910) and George V (from 1911 through 1936).


King Edward VIII abdicated the throne just months after his 1936 coronation, and thus no official Canadian coins were produced in time to honor his reign. It should be noted, however, that pattern pieces and coins for other British commonwealths did produce limited supplies of Edward VIII coinage.

George VI would first appear on Canadian coinage in 1937, where his effigy appeared until his death in 1952. The following year, George VI’s young daughter–Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II–made her first appearance on Canada’s coins after her ascension to the throne.

Canadian Coins Popular among U.S. Coin Collectors

In the 1960s and ‘70s and into the early ‘80s, there were dozens of coin albums, coin folders, and coin holders for sale in the U.S. designed specifically for Canadian coins. From large cents of the 19th and early 20th centuries to silver dollars and everything in between, Canadian coins of all denominations were actively pursued by American coin collectors. In the mid-1960s, Canadian coins were particularly popular among U.S. numismatists looking for collecting alternatives when the United States Treasury Department phased out 90% silver coinage and temporarily abolished the use of mint marks.

canadaalbumsCanada would similarly cease production of its 80% silver circulating coinage in 1968, three years after the advent of copper-nickel clad coinage in the United States. However, circulating Canadian silver coinage would bow out with one last hurrah during the commemoration of the Canadian Confederacy’s centennial in 1967. The reverses of all six circulating coins, from the cent to the dollar, were redesigned with simple yet beautiful portraits of Canadian wildlife. These commemorative coins were greeted warmly by American numismatists, who had grown tired of the relatively stale state of U.S. coinage in the mid-’60s.

While few 1967 Canadian coins circulated with regularity in the United States, American collectors of the time could buy 1967 Pliofilm-packaged proof-like sets for US$4 to $5 from coin dealers. Well-heeled numismatists could spring for the boxed 1967 Canadian proof set, which contained the six aforementioned commemorative coins plus a $20 gold coin bearing the Canadian coat of arms on the reverse. These special proof sets were issued for $40. Today, the 1967 prooflike set sells for $20 to $30, while the 1967 boxed proof set has a market value of more than $750.

Canadian silver coins in general are popular among both numismatists and bullion investors, with the nation’s 80% silver coins finding a huge market in the junk silver sector. The Canadian silver dollar enjoys an especially robust following among both groups.

Coin collectors, meanwhile, enjoy assembling date sets of Canadian dimes, quarters, and half dollars.

The Evolving Canadian Dollar Coin

canadadollarsCanada has produced circulating dollar coins since 1935. These were initially issued with a composition consisting of 80 percent silver. During the course of the dollar’s run, which lasted from 1935 through 1967, six circulating commemorative coins were produced:

  • 1935 George V Silver Jubilee dollar with Voyageur reverse (this would become the regular reverse design for Canada’s dollar coins through 1987)
  • 1939 George VI Royal Visit dollar with Ottawa’s Parliament building on the reverse
  • 1949 Newfoundland dollar with John Cabot’s ship the Matthew on the reverse
  • 1958 British Columbia centennial dollar with totem pole reverse
  • 1964 Charlottetown, Quebec centennial dollar with French fleur-de-lis, Irish shamrock, Scottish thistle, and English rose on the reverse
  • 1967 Confederation centennial dollar with the Canada Goose on the reverse

Each of these coins can be bought for under $50 in Mint State grades. However, there are several key-date Canadian dollars to challenge numismatists, including the low-mintage 1945 dollar (which sells for $125 in Fine-12), 1947 dollar with maple leaf adjacent to the date ($150 and up in Fine-12), and scarce 1948 dollar, which had a mintage of just 18,780 pieces and sells for $750 in Fine-12.

Even after the implementation of a nickel composition in 1968, Canada’s circulating dollar coin continued to serve as a canvas for commemorative designs in the 1970s and early ‘80s. The so-called “Loonie” dollar, a small-sized golden dollar coin bearing a depiction of a loon on the reverse, debuted in 1987 and replaced both the larger Voyageur dollar and the nation’s $1 bill. Mint State examples of circulating nickel Voyageur dollars and Loonies can be bought for less than $2.

Canadian Confederation Commemorative & Millennium Series Quarters

In 1992, seven years before the debut of the popular 50 States Quarters program in the United States, Canada issued a series of 12 circulating quarters honoring the nation’s provinces. The coin designs were released in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of the nation’s confederation. The 125th anniversary quarters turn up in American circulation from time to time, though they can be bought in sets of 12 coins from coin dealers for as little as $15.

In 1999, Canada began a two-year series celebrating the new millennium. Comprised of 24 coins released over the course of 1999 and 2000, the Millennium series was broken into two segments: 1999-dated coins honored Canada’s past while 2000 quarters provided glimpses of the hopes and dreams for the nation’s future. These circulating quarters provided numismatists and everyday change-checkers with a vast array of unique designs that piqued the interests of coin collectors on both sides of the border.

The Millennium quarters, which became as popular among Canadians as the 50 States Quarters were here in the U.S., can be bought in many aftermarket forms, including colorized versions. Americans in the northern states or other areas with high concentrations of Canadian travelers can assemble sets of these coins from pocket change. However, Mint State sets of standard business-strike Millennium quarters can be bought from coin dealers for less than $20.

Since 2004, Canada has also issued 12 circulating quarters with colored segments. The first, a 2004 Remembrance Day quarter with red-colored poppy on the reverse, saw widespread popularity in the international numismatic community. Other colored circulating Canadian quarters include the 2006 Breast Cancer Awareness quarter with pink ribbon and a three-coin series from 2011 featuring green, blue, and yellow elements on quarters depicting, respectively, the wood bison, orca whale, and peregrine falcon. These quarters are available in the aftermarket for as little as $1 each.

A Word about Canadian Pennies

canadabcquarterThe denomination most commonly found in U.S. circulation is perhaps the Canadian one-cent coin.

The denomination was phased out on February 4, 2013 due to environmental issues and the handling costs imposed on retailers and financial institutions–not to mention the rising cost of producing pennies. According to one Canadian government estimate, the elimination of the one-cent coin saves taxpayers CA$11 million a year. The Canadian government has implemented a transparent rounding system for dealing with cash transactions when the penny is unavailable, and so far the nation’s economy seems to be faring well enough without the one-cent coin.

Whether or not the elimination of the one-cent coin would work as well here remains to be seen. Still, Americans can find Canadian one-cent coins mixed in among the plentiful pennies that continue circulating in the United States. Most of these Canadian one-cent coins are generally worth a nominal amount over face value, at best. Among the more interesting finds American collectors could make are the 1967 Confederation centennial rock dove penny and any pennies bearing the portraits of a young Queen Elizabeth II (pre-1965) or her royal male predecessors.

There are a few substantial rarities among Canada’s small cents, which were first made in 1920. The most famous among these is the 1936 dot cent. The 1936 dot cent, so named for a tiny dot under the date on the reverse, was made in 1937, after George V died but prior to die preparations for new pennies bearing the likeness of George VI on the obverse. These pieces were never released for circulation, though three 1936 dot cents are known to exist. The late John Jay Pittman, one of the most esteemed U.S. numismatists, had all three known specimens in his prestigious coin collection from 1961 until his death in 1996. The three 1936 dot cents have since been sold and sell for more than $200,000 whenever they hit the auction block.

1936centOther scarce Canadian cents include the 1922, 1923, and 1925 pennies, which all sell for $15 to $40 in the lower circulated grades. The 1955 Queen Elizabeth II cent with a strap across her shoulder is worth upwards of $100.

Other Canadian Coins

The complexity of the Canadian coin scene can scarcely be represented in just one article, but I think most U.S. coin collectors reading this get the idea that there are many exciting finds among Canada’s coins. In the second part of this two-part series, I will discuss non-circulating Canadian coins, including the ever-popular Maple Leaf bullion coins, special-issue commemoratives, and even holographic coinage. Oh, Canada – what a nation of interesting coins!

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  1. I was a young lad when the US phased out silver coinage. Living along the US-CAnadian border provided many opportunities to continue to collect Canadian silver dimes and quarters for several years after 1964. I still hold some of these coins today.


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