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The loonie's 'fortuitous' northern connection

One of the great things about driving Northern Ontario's roads is the interesting things you'll happen upon. The Big Loonie in Echo Bay is one of them

One of the highlights in driving the back roads is the opportunity enroute to see a variety of roadside attractions. And along the way there are plenty of famous, not to mention unusual, landmarks across northern Ontario. They are very photogenic.

There is the ‘Big Loonie’ in Echo Bay, 30 kilometres east of Sault Ste. on Hwy 17 B — one of those large and interesting roadside attractions catching the eye of the wayward traveller.

A 'fortuitous' history

The gold-coloured coin was introduced in 1987 as a cost-saving measure to replace dollar bills. There was pressure from vending machine operators, transit companies and cities in relation to parking meters who wanted to raise prices in coin operated equipment. It was instantly dubbed the 'loonie' (French: huard) after the solitary loon that graces the coin's reverse side. The nickname caught on and Canadians have been using it ever since.  

Alex Reeves  was contacted, he is  Senior Manager of Public Affairs of the Royal Canadian Mint. It is the Crown Corporation responsible for the minting and distribution of Canada’s circulation coins. An ISO 9001 certified company; the Mint is recognized as one of the largest and most versatile mints in the world.  He said the Loonie is known around the world as an innovative trailblazer for its composition and cutting-edge security features.

In June 1987, Canadians welcomed Canada’s new 11-sided of constant width, one-dollar coin in their pockets and change purses. The introduction of the coin was the most significant change in Canada’s currency system in a half century.  All Canadian coins bear the image of Queen Elizabeth II on the reverse side.

Mr. Reeves said, “The Loonie as we know it was never meant to be. When the original master stamping dies of a one-dollar coin depicting a voyageur were lost, the Government of Canada authorized a new design, the loon, to preserve the integrity of the Canadian coinage system.”

The Echo Bay connection

In 1992, the town of Echo Bay, just east of Sault Ste. Marie constructed a Loon Dollar Monument to honor wildlife artist Robert R. Carmichael, a resident of the village and artist responsible for the 1987 coin’s loon design. Knowingly he created a symbol, which Canadians and others around the world associate with untouched wilderness, and by association, a healthy environment. His design for the loonie was the first one the mint accepted after 10 years of continually submitting proposals. While the loonie was Carmichael's best known numismatic work, he designed more than a dozen other coins for the mint, including several gold and commemorative coins before he passed away four years ago. Ninety-five percent of the world’s Common Loons breed in Canada and the species occurs regularly in every province and territory. 

Cindy Findlay is the Leisure Services Coordinator, Township of Macdonald, Meredith & Aberdeen Additional where Echo Bay is located. 

“We just had our Festival celebrating 25 years for the monument three years ago. I know for a fact it gets at least a visitor a day in the summer from the times that I’ve been working in the flower gardens or cleaning up.

“Its significance to our community is huge,“ Cindy said. “It puts us on the map. The Highway 17 four-lane bypass has taken a lot of through traffic away which in turn affected some of our businesses in our town, unless they needed a rest stop or gasoline fill up.”

Reeves said more than 205 million coins, the most of any year, were produced in 1987. The Loonie is the only non-circular coin among Canadian currency with eleven sides. Twenty years is the lifespan of the one-dollar coin. A single coin is about as heavy as a sheet of paper or 6.27 grams. The coin's diameter is 26.5 mm. Loonies are made of Aureate, a bronze-electroplated nickel combination. Side by side, all of the Loonies minted could span across Canada’s entire national highway systems — that’s 3,700 km. Since 2012, the Mint’s technological improvements have made it one of the most secure coins in the world. It has an engraved laser mark and is comprised of multi-ply plated steel. 

A coin of legend

A Loonie was buried at centre ice prior to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City to bring good luck to Canada’s gold medal winning men’s and women’s hockey teams. A Canadian icemaking assistant placed the coins after realizing there was no target at centre ice for referees to aim for when dropping the puck for a faceoff. A thin yellow dot was painted on the ice surface over the coins, though the loonie was faintly visible to those who knew to look for it. Several members of the women's team kissed the spot where the coin was buried following their victory. After the men won their final, the coin was dug up and given to Wayne Gretzky, the team's executive-director, who revealed the existence of the "lucky loonie" at a post-game press conference.

How to find it

Because of the highway bypass it can be missed. Look for the Echo Bay turnoffs. From the site of the “Big Loonie,” be sure to stroll the adjacent Lake George Marsh Boardwalk, a 670-metre (2,200 foot) section of wheelchair accessible paths to explore.  This leads to a bird-viewing platform allowing you to see some excellent views of a provincially significant wetland. Maybe you'll spot a loon. 

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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