A Canadian's Requiem for the Penny

A Canadian's Requiem for the Penny
In Canada, the penny is no longer worth the expense to make. But for one Canadian the copper coin evokes some childhood memories (Photograph by Pierre Desrosiers)
Photograph by Pierre Desrosiers

Ah, the irony. A decade ago, when the Canadian dollar was worth around 65¢ south of the border, a penny was the only coin Americans might let you slip into their registers. Although the loonie is now at par, the penny is officially dead. Today marks the last day of Canada’s one-cent coin, as the Royal Canadian Mint starts to phase it out of circulation.

Technically, it should have died years ago. Even without its original copper (last used in 1996), each coin still costs 1.6¢ to make. The Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator will tell you it now takes 20 pennies to purchase what one could buy back in 1914. It’s hardly worth the effort even to carry. Such countries as Australia and Finland have done away with their small change for the same reason.

Yet it’s hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for a coin that’s such a part of the lexicon on both sides of the border. Nothing evokes the spirit of thrift like the humble penny, from penny pinchers to being penny wise and pound foolish. (Pound? Yes, it’s an English phrase from the early 17th century. They have pennies, too, though they killed their halfpenny in 1984.)

When I heard of the penny’s impending death last year, I found myself flashing back to a commercial jingle from my childhood: “Every penny that you save is another penny earned, that’s something Colonel Sanders was mighty quick to learn.” It was for Kentucky Fried Chicken, which has since relegated “fried” and “finger lickin’ good” to the dustbin of history as slogans in this part of the world. For a young family who’d arrived in Canada from Scotland, a bucket of fried chicken and tub of coleslaw was a welcome treat. And the song, however annoying, left me with the indelible impression that the Colonel was delivering good value.

But life goes on. Canadians will now start rounding up or down to the nearest nickel, with some already debating whether that coin is obsolete, too. With more than six billion pennies in circulation, the copper-colored coin isn’t likely to disappear soon. Now, though, it will become a museum piece, a decoration like the halfpennies that my grandmother converted to bracelets for my sisters and me when that coin died. I still have that bracelet and often find myself wondering why she felt so attached to a currency that had clearly run its course.

Now I know.

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