The beaver nickel is going the way of its namesake, the original Canadian currency
A lot of Canadians may not realize that the country's famously busy rodent holds an illustrious place, not just as an early trade good and national symbol, but as our first actual unit of currency killed off by inflation.
But now, the same phenomenon that is making grocery shopping feel like a trip to the jewelry store, means one of the last vestiges of the beaver's place in Canada's monetary history may soon disappear from your pocket and change purse.
The demise of the Canadian five-cent coin bearing the image of the industrious critter — still called the nickel, though actual nickel ones are increasingly rare — has been widely predicted.
The time will come when the nickel will have to be taken out of circulation, said a report from Desjardins in 2016 (new window). "We can already start planning for this change so as to see it materialize within about five years."
That prediction, which would have seen the end of the nickel in 2020, was made back when prices were rising at less than two per cent a year. But this year's surge in inflation is eroding the value far more rapidly of what, since the penny disappeared, has become Canada's lowest-denomination circulating coin.
High inflation eats away at loonie's value
In 2023, it will be 10 years since we lost the penny. With inflation hovering just below seven per cent (new window), can the nickel be far behind?
For many Canadians, whether the nickel continues to exist may seem unimportant. According to the Bank of Canada (new window), the vast majority of us really don't use much cash anymore.
As recently as 2009 more than half of all transactions were in cash. By 2017 that had fallen to one-third (new window). Over the same period, all money transactions, a figure that includes larger block transfers, declined from about one-quarter cash to 15 per cent. An outbreak of germophobia early in the pandemic only increased non-cash payments.
The COVID-19 pandemic ... led to greater use of debit and credit cards, said Ron Morrow, the Bank of Canada's executive director of retail payments supervision, last month (new window). "About 85 per cent of merchants now accept these electronic forms of payments."
Rogers crash and cash
But cash still has a value, as we learned during the past year's Rogers service outage (new window), when alternative payment methods crashed. And by choice or necessity, for anyone who uses cash — and until we have a foolproof and universal alternative — change back from your five remains essential.
The question is, as the value of the nickel coin shrinks, exactly how fine-tuned does that settling of accounts needs to be?
When the end does come, Winnipeg coin collector Bruce Taylor will be sad to see the nickel coin go. Taylor has every five-cent coin going back to 1900. Except one.
The one I really want is a 1921, which really isn't nickel, it's silver, said Taylor in a recent phone conversation.
The one that I want and the grade that I want is probably around $9,000.
Unlike the nickel in your pocket, the value of collector coins like the one Taylor covets keep rising in value.
The actual nickel in solid nickel coins that you can still sometimes find in your change, called the
melt value, is worth about three times the coin's face value, although that fluctuates with metal prices. Since 1982, the Royal Canadian Mint has been withdrawing those nickel coins from circulation (new window) for their metal, increasing their collectors' value.
But will the mostly-steel nickels now in circulation increase in value once they are discontinued? Taylor is suspicious they won't.
A $5 coin?
The penny didn't, said Taylor, who said that for people with metal detectors, the penny coin is one of the most common things to find. They had become so valueless that kids just throw them away, he said, and with high inflation, he thinks the nickel is heading in the same direction.
I don't think I was disappointed when the penny was gone, but if they keep doing that what are we going to be left with, he asks.
The five-dollar coin?
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So far the government has been close-mouthed about when and whether the mint will replace the Queen's profile with that of King Charles III, but that could be a moment to decide the nickel is more trouble than it is worth.
The idea is that this is the value of one prime beaver skin, said Gettler in a phone conversation. Beaver pelts were not convenient to carry around to use as cash, but they appeared in account books as units of money for other goods, even when no beavers were actually being traded.
The evidence we do have is that really quickly, in fact, the value of the made beaver diverges from the value of the actual beaver skin, said Gettler.
The made beaver became a true abstract currency with an abstract value, he said, the same way that the British pound sterling is no longer worth a pound of sterling silver.
Indigenous people also occasionally used what were called
tally sticks or metal tokens struck by the fur trade companies to represent the made beaver units. But mostly, said Gettler, people kept their accounts in their memories.
Inflation good for the company
There's sort of a universal recognition on the part of traders that the Indigenous people they're trading with have remarkably good memories and that they're honest, said Gettler.
But what we see is that the value of the made beaver is inflated in the spring and early summer when indigenous people come in to sell their furs, which was always to the advantage of the fur trading companies, he said.
When loggers and settlers arrived with hard currency, first pounds and then dollars, the Indigenous trappers gravitated to it quickly
because that is a standard of value that is outside of the control of the companies, said Gettler.
Thus ended the made beaver as a unit of Canadian currency, destined to be driven out of existence by inflation, like the beaver nickel today.
Don Pittis (new window) · CBC News