Last month's Coins column suggested that it was time to replace the designs on our 1-cent and 5-cent coins with art work created by a Canadian instead of the British designer who actually created them. The headline on the column was "Let Canadian redesign our penny."
Although everyone calls our smallest coin a penny, it really isn't. In Canada, there is no such thing as a penny, nickel, dime, quarter, or half-dollar. Even though these words appear on vending machines all across the country, Canada does not have, and never did have, any coins by those names. The words all have American or British origins, and their usage to refer to Canadian coins is technically incorrect. In fact, since Canadian and American coins are now further apart in value than they have ever been, the continuing use of American terms to describe Canadian coins actually refers to currency with a value 50 per cent higher than our own.
According to the Royal Canadian Mint Act, the only circulating Canadian coins are the one- and two-dollar coins, and the 1- , 5-, 10-, 25-, and 50-cent pieces. Using American or British names for Canadian coins is nothing new. Although the word penny, for example, is a British word dating back more than 1,200 years, it was used on many privately-struck pre-Confederation tokens before this country had its own official coins.
Back in 1920, the Canadian Historical Review complained, "Our children call cents 'pennies' ... and our pretty 5-cent silver pieces they call 'nickels' after their ugly American equivalents." The term nickel first appeared in North America as a nickname for a coin when the United States began to strike 5-cent pieces in 1865. Although theywere 75 per cent copper and only 25 per cent nickel, the name was commonly applied to the Canadian 5-cent piece - even when the coin was struck in real silver.
A dime is the proper name of the American 10-cent coin, and has appeared on those coins continuously since 1837. Since the name was in common usage for many years before the first Canadian 10-cent coin appeared in 1858, its use as a nickname for the Canadian equivalent was probably inevitable. Similarly, the terms quarter and half-dollar were part of the daily language in Canada long before the government issued its first 25-cent and 50-cent piecesin 1870.
Acceptance of slang names for Canadian coins has even gained acceptance in our courts.
On Dec. 14, 1966, a green Jaguar belonging to Queen's University law student (now lawyer) Matthew C. Hudson was given a parking ticket by a Kingston, Ont., meter maid. He had received so many tickets he decided to fight one as a matter of principle.
When the case got to trial, the magistrate acquitted Hudson of the charge. The court ruled the city's parking meters bore invalid instructions because they referred to pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. The court ruled that there were no such Canadian coins. Unfortunately, the city of Kingston appealed, and the outcome was closely watched by other municipalities which also had similar inscriptions on their parking meters. Hudson's argument before Justice C. D. Stewart of the Supreme Court of Ontario took more than 40 minutes. He argued that Kingston's parking meter bylaw prohibited the use of substitutes for coins it defined as one-, 5-, 10- and 25-cent pieces. He noted that the Currency Act did not mention pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, and conflicted with the Criminal Code, which required that only coins designated on meters could be used. The judge, who was obviously amused, questioned Hudson at length on the legal points he was making, and complimented him on an ingenious argument, but said he could not agree with him. The case was sent back to the magistrate and Hudson eventually had to pay the parking ticket. Although a transcript has not survived, the court presumably made its ruling on the basis that the wording on the parking meters was colloquial, and the intention was quite clear.
And that is why, even to this day, coin accepting devices across the country - including those on parking meters and, yes, newspaper boxes - still refer to our coins by the names or nicknames of their American counterparts. But for the 32 years that this column has appeared in The Star, Canadian coins have always been referred to - at least in the text portions - by their Canadian names.