Thursday, November 20, 2008


The Royal Canadian Mint, the historic limestone structure located at 320 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, is celebrating its 100th birthday. Although most of Canada's coins, including the "Loonie" and the "Twonie" are now struck at a production plant in Winnipeg, the mint's majestic building near the Rideau Falls, a couple of blocks from the Prime Minister's residence at 24 Sussex, remains an Ottawa icon of some repute.

At the start of the 20th century, Canada's currency including gold coins, were struck on the premises. Gold was then valued at about $32 an ounce, production procedures were lax, and the tailing's were sloshed down the one hundred foot embankment right into the Ottawa River. As the price of gold has risen to nearly $900 an ounce in recent years, mystery ships, dredges and divers of all sorts have appeared below the mint's embankments claiming to be looking for a virtual fortune in gold dust said to be lying at the bottom of the river as a result of those past processes. No one has ever confessed to finding the mythical "El Dorado"...I don't suppose they would if they did.

In the 1960's, the firebrand "spinster" mayor, Charlotte Whitton, plunked Ottawa's new city hall on Green Island, just above Rideau Falls where the World Heritage River flows into the Ottawa River. When I moved to Ottawa about 30 year ago all of the city owned vehicles were painted an "electric" orange colour...a specially mixed paint known as Ottawa Orange. The story is that Ms Whitton's lunch hour pastime from her penthouse office suite overlooking the river, binoculars in hand, was to count the number of city owned vehicles parked in Quebec's Hull sector at seedy bars and strip joints. The bright orange colour made it easier for her to spot them....Oops, major digression!

Another of the Royal Canadian Mint's stories is the still unresolved theft of the original one dollar coin engravings shipped to the Winnipeg production plant on November 3, 1986. Bureaucrats at the Mint figured they'd save $43.50 by shipping the master engravings by courier rather than by secure armoured vehicles. The two plates: the Queen on one side, and the majestic Emanuel Hahn Voyageur Canoe that had graced Canada's first silver dollar, left Ottawa in an overnight courier bag never to be seen again.

Once the theft had been discovered, the RCMP called in, and in order to avoid counterfeits the Mint came-up with the "iconic" loon design from a proposal they had rejected for a silver coin in 1978. The original engravings have never been located...their theft never solved. The legacy of the 1986 incident is that Canadians were given our venerated iconic "loonie" instead. At last count there are just short of one billion loonie dollar coins in circulation in Canada.

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