BEHAVIOR

A 'loonie’ revolt

Resisting the end of the paper dollar

NORA UNDERWOOD June 5 1989
BEHAVIOR

A 'loonie’ revolt

Resisting the end of the paper dollar

NORA UNDERWOOD June 5 1989

The cartoon displayed in the windows of some Edmonton stores showed a bird with bulging red eyes and a clenched beak. To the side of the animal—which was meant to represent the loon depicted on Canada’s two-year-old $1 coin—a startled Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, in cowboy boots and spurs, had been tossed off the bird into the water. The satirical attack on the coin that many Canadians call a loonie was the brainchild of Edmonton entrepreneur Graham Buie. Since mid-May, the 37-year-old owner of Greenfield Investments Inc. has been marketing “Buck-a-Loonie” lapel buttons and postcards—preaddressed to Mulroney—as part of a campaign aimed at persuading the federal government to change its policy of replacing $1 bills with the coin. Said Buie: “I hope to make a living doing this and at the same time give Canadians a chance to speak out on something that affects their lives on a daily basis.” Buie’s opposition to the loonie is widely shared. Indeed, since the coin was introduced in June, 1987, public opinion surveys have showed that only about one-third of Canadians say that they actually like the coin, while many others regard it as too big and too heavy—or just plain ugly.

From the start, the 11-sided, gold-colored coin made of bronze-plated nickel has provoked strong reactions. Across Canada, shopkeepers and bank tellers say that some of their customers routinely reject loonies and insist on paper money. As well, Bank of Canada officials estimate that as many as 75 million of the more than 200 million loonies introduced so far have been taken out of circulation by tourists, coin collectors—or by Canadians who prefer to leave loonies at home rather than put them in their pockets or purses. Said Daniel Luffman, a service station attendant in Dartmouth, N.S.: “They’re too hard to handle. They’re bulky and they take up too much space in your pocket. I try to get rid of them, and a lot of other people don’t want them either.”

The loonies appear to be particularly unpopular with some operators of small businesses. “Don’t even talk to me about those damned things,” said Dennis Herman, a Calgary restaurant owner. “Our paper float bags won’t hold the coins because they are too heavy.” And he added that many of his customers often refuse to accept loonies. “Men particularly hate loonies because they wear holes in their pockets,” said Herman. “Only the wimps take them.” For his part, Rork Hilford, a Calgary ice cream parlor operator, said that he stopped using loonies in his business after he informally polled his customers in December, 1987, and found that 80 per cent of them said they disliked the coins. Now, a sign over his cash register boasts: “We don’t take loonies, we elect them.” And Vancouver bookstore manager Thane McLennan says that his staff never gives dollar coins for change unless they are asked for them—“except for one of our cashiers who gives loonies away as soon as he gets them because he hates them.”

Indeed, Julie Walsh, a supervisor in the Bank of Canada’s cash processing branch in Vancouver, says that she has had hundreds of complaints from Canadians about the size and weight of the coins. For Edward Kvello, who owns a food store in Regina, the coins are a nuisance because of their size and the added sorting and counting time required. “The bill is a lot slicker to work with,” he said. Jocelyn Roy, a 38-year-old rare-coin dealer in Montreal, objects to the loonies for both personal and professional reasons. Roy said that he dislikes the coins and is trying to accumulate a supply of $1 bills to use once the paper currency is phased out. Said Roy: “I hope to have enough bills for one or two years. If any cashiers give me the coin, I will give it back.”

Indeed, eight polls commissioned by the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa since the coin's introduction illustrate that lack of support. In one public opinion survey last July, support for the loonie had decreased to 39 per cent from 52 per cent during what Michael Francis, communications manager for bullion products at the mint, called its “honeymoon period” following its debut. At the same time, the poll showed that disapproval had risen to 36 per cent from 19 per cent a year earlier. The remaining 25 per cent said that they had no strong feelings either way about the coin.

Still, the protests of some loon-loathing Canadians are unlikely to sway Bank of Canada officials from cutting off the circulation of paper $1 bills after June 30. Bank officials estimate that with no new bills being put into circulation, most paper $1 bills should wear out and be withdrawn from circulation within a few years. But they will remain legal tender indefinitely.

Federal officials insist that there are sound economic reasons for switching to the $1 coin, which carries a depiction of a common loon by Ontario artist Robert-Ralph Carmichael on one side and Arnold Machin’s 1965 likeness of Queen Elizabeth II on the other. Because inflation has steadily eroded the value of the dollar over the years, paper $1 bills now change hands so often that they last only between nine and 12 months before they wear out and have to be replaced. The loonie is far more durable, with an estimated life-span, according to former minister of supply and services Stewart Mclnnes, of up to 20 years.

As well, the coin has its staunch defenders, particularly among the groups that lobbied for Ottawa to introduce a $1 coin in the first place. Alyre Cormier, the Toronto-based executive vice-president of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, said that Canadian municipal bus, streetcar and subway services expect to save $4 million a year in sorting costs when paper $1 bills are phased out. Cormier added that 19 people had to be hired in Toronto just to sort out $1 bills that riders had jammed into transit fare boxes. And vending machine manufacturers, distributors and suppliers lobbied for the $1 coin on the grounds that people often did not have enough change for vending machines. Organizations representing visually impaired people defend the loonie on the grounds that it can easily be identified by touch. For his part, Mclnnes said that the economic benefits of the loonie should be worth an estimated $175 million to Canadian taxpayers during the next 20 years.

Experts put forward conflicting theories about why the $1 coin seems to provoke so much opposition among Canadians. James Maxwell, a sociology professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said he thinks that sales personnel in stores, after experiencing some initial customer resistance, began to assume that nobody wanted loonies. Francis agreed. The biggest hindrance to the loonie’s acceptance, he said, was the “lack of perceived availability,” which resulted from the fact that shopkeepers and cashiers believe that the public dislikes the coins. As a result, said Francis, people who are dealing with the public avoid handing out loonies—and continue to use the bills—because they expect the coins to be rejected. That theory was substantiated by another poll conducted in December, which found that 60 per cent of the cashiers surveyed expected negative reactions to the coin.

As well, said Maxwell, the loonie provokes resentment among Canadians because the coin “transfers the dollar from what we think of as money that will buy something to the category of loose change—which is a derogatory term.” That is the effect the coin has had on Donna MacLean, who works in a variety store in Hubbards, N.S., 35 km west of Halifax. “They get lost in all the change,” she said. “They don’t seem like a real dollar.”

At the same time, resistance to the loonie may simply reflect a pattern of initial rejection that has greeted the introduction of new coins in other countries during the past decade. After Britain introduced a coin to replace the bills used for its basic currency—the pound sterling, now worth $1.90 Canadian—in 1983, many Britons resisted the new coin, which they derisively dubbed “the round pound.” Since then, the pound coins have increased in popularity. In the United States, rejection by many ordinary Americans brought about the demise of the short-lived $1 coin that was introduced in 1979. James Benfield, executive director of the Washington-based Coin Coalition, said that the coins were unpopular because they were similar in color to the U.S. 25-cent piece and confused people. As well, he added, some Americans living in more conservative parts of the country resented the coins because they commemorated feminist leader Susan B. Anthony, who died in 1906.

Now, Benfield’s lobby group is mounting a campaign in the United States for the introduction of another $1 coin. Benfield said that his organization—which is made up of 17 national trade associations—is pressing for the introduction of a smooth-edged gold-colored coin depicting Christopher Columbus, believed by many Americans to have discovered what is now America. A bill to provide for the minting and circulation of a $1 coin, which was introduced in the House of Representatives in February, is currently being considered by a banking committee. Benfield said that the proposal, which was partly inspired by the loonie, could save taxpayers about $147 million annually. He added that when Washington introduced the Anthony coin, it made the fundamental mistake of not phasing out $1 bills. Faced with a choice, Americans opted for paper money. “You can get too democratic for your own good,” said Benfield.

By October, Canadians will probably have little choice but to start living with the loonie. By then, said Francis, a large quantity of paper $1 bills will have been withdrawn from circulation. For her part, Suzanne Herbeuval, the manager of a café in downtown Montreal, predicts that “people will get used to it. The coin buys as much as the bill.” At the same time, defenders of the loonie have begun to speak out. In an editorial in April, the Calgary Herald argued: “It’s time for the dollar bill to go the way of the shinplaster, the 25-cent bill first circulated in 1870. Few Canadians probably want a 25-cent bill back, and few eventually will miss a paper dollar.” But, for now at least, many Canadians appear unwilling to accept the change.