Creative Canadians preserve iconic, soon-to-be obsolete penny

by Michelle McQuigge

TORONTO – The country’s one-cent piece may be on the verge of extinction, but for creative Canadians seeking ways to make the most of the soon-to-be obsolete coin, the penny has already dropped.

Humble pennies will still be in demand for artistic endeavours or cultural projects long after the smallest form of currency has disappeared from Canadian tills.

That phase-out begins Monday when the Royal Canadian Mint officially stops distributing one-cent coins to Canada’s financial institutions.

The move comes nearly a year after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced the demise of the coin, whose production cost had come to exceed its monetary value.

For some artists, however, the penny remains an item of considerable worth.

Renee Gruszecki, a Halifax-based academic and archivist, has spent the past year making a living through a jewelry business devoted primarily to preserving the country’s stray cents.

About 30,000 strategically sorted pennies fill Gruszecki’s home and eventually find their way into the accessories produced at Coin Coin Designs and Co.

Gruszecki, a long-time collector of lucky pennies, believes her pieces will help preserve a symbol that doubles as both an object of superstition and a Canadian icon.

“The maple leaf is synonymous with everything Canadian. We all identify with it,” she said in a telephone interview. “Now it’s just no longer going to be present among us, so I’m saddened by that.”

The Bank of Canada’s Currency Museum has already taken one step towards preserving the penny a little longer in the minds of Canadians.

A mural consisting of nearly 16,000 one-cent pieces has been assembled at the museum to commemorate the coin’s history, said assistant curator Raewyn Passmore.

The mosaic, which depicts a giant penny measuring about two square metres, is comprised of coins ranging from the lustrous to the tarnished.

Passmore said the design was meant to honour a coin which, while lacking buying power now, enjoyed many decades of prominence since its first minting in 1858.

“It was probably the most common coin in circulation at one point and probably the most useful for ordinary people,” she said. “We wanted to make a tribute to a sometimes overlooked coin.”

The penny’s lack of present-day value was the impetus for its demise, a point that’s recently been driven home to Canadians hoping to use their discarded coins to raise money for charity.

Jeff Golby, director of charity bank Chimp Fund, launched a publicity campaign shortly after the last penny was struck in an effort to convince Canadians to empty their pockets into the coffers of cash-strapped organizations.

A massive penny party held in downtown Ottawa netted more than 120,000 cents, but starkly illustrated the coin’s economic shortcomings.

Canadians who want to dispose of their spare change, Golby said, could find better uses for it than stopping by a charitable penny drive.

“On some level you go, ‘OK, it can’t hurt,’ but when you factor in what it costs to charity . . . in time, in rolling costs, it’s not a cost-effective way for charities to really actually net decent money,” he said.

The logistical challenges associated with the penny were one reason Flaherty cited for discontinuing the coin, adding the economic toll worked out to about $11 million a year.

Retailers will be among the first to start phasing out the coin, and Canadians will see the effects almost immediately.

The Federal Government has issued guidelines urging store owners to start rounding prices to the nearest nickel for cash transactions. Electronic purchases will still be billed to the nearest cent.

It may take months for the penny to completely disappear from circulation, news that Gruszecki suspects is welcome to more than just penny-wise entrepreneurs.

Sales of her jewelry have spiked as the coin’s demise drew nearer, she said, adding Canadians’ disregard for the coin as a form of legal tender has not diminished their sense of its value.

“I hope my jewelry will serve as a means for them to save a penny and keep the penny in circulation,” she said.

“If you’re wearing it on a ring or you’re wearing it around your neck, you keep its visual presence certainly alive. If there can be an additional layer of meaning to it, all the better.”




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