Seven things you might not know about the history of Canada’s toonie

There’s a good chance you regularly use toonies in vending machines or parking meters. There’s an even greater chance that you haven’t given much thought to Canada’s $2 coin. 

But the striking two-toned piece, which has been in circulation for almost three decades, has a curious past — one that began with a decision to create one of the lightest (7.3 g) and thinnest (1.8 mm) bimetallic coins in the world. 

The announcement of the new $2 piece came on September 21, 1995, at the Toronto Zoo. Canadians were given a peek at what the Mint considered “one of the world’s most innovative circulation coins.” With its now-iconic bronze centre and outer ring of nickel, the toonie was about to be born. 

On February 19, 1996, the coin went into circulation amid debate over what to call it. “Bearie” or “twonie” and even “double loonie” were popular contenders. But “toonie” quickly won out as the nickname of choice.

[Read our blog: Canada’s stunning new coin honours Black military history]

But that’s just one interesting tidbit. Here are some others: 

The toonie was created to save money

The decision to create a $2 coin was a financial one. Paper banknotes are typically removed from circulation after one year. Coins, however, have a much longer lifespan, lasting 20 years or more. They’re easy to carry and work exceptionally well in automated payment machines. 

In its first production, the Winnipeg mint struck 375 million toonies, each costing $0.16 to make. And there was such strong demand for the new $2 coin that no new loonies were minted from 1997-2002.

The polar bear’s fur is actually “wet”

The winning design for the toonie was selected from sketches by five Canadian artists. Wildlife artist Brent Townsend’s depiction of a polar bear hunting on the Arctic ice floes was chosen to appear on the inaugural coin. Townsend wanted to ensure that the bear was clearly identifiable — not a grizzly or a black bear — on a surface that had limited relief and one colour. “When I sketched [the bear], I did it like it was wet so that the fur structure would show up,” Townsend said. The exaggerated details of the wet fur made helped the image to appear more clearly in the engraving.

[Read our blog: Crystal Eye of Nunavik: Celebrating a mysterious meteor impact with an interactive coin]

The polar bear has a name

In 2006, a decade after the toonie had been in circulation, the Mint held a contest to name the polar bear. Canadians across the country voted for their favourite from the five options: Churchill, Wilbert, Makwa, Sacha and Plouf. The winning moniker: Churchill — a popular town in Manitoba for polar bear watching. 

That separation thing? It’s a myth

When the toonie was first launched, its bimetallic composition was one of its most striking and talked-about elements. Soon after it was released into circulation, however, reports of separation surfaced. Some claimed the nickel and bronze rings were easily broken apart.  

The Mint maintains that the separations were isolated events and involved abnormal use. And the coin continues to undergo regular testing. 

According to the Mint, the toonie’s middle can withstand 181 kg of pressure. That’s ten times the force that can be exerted by the human hand.

The toonie had a facelift in 2012

In 2012, the $2 coin had a makeover. Original toonies were composed of a pure nickel outer ring and centre ring of copper (92%), aluminum (6%) and nickel (2%). In 2012, this composition was changed to multi-ply plated steel technology: multi-ply nickel-plated steel for the outer ring and multi-ply brass-plated aluminium bronze for the inner ring. 

This upgrade allowed the Mint to integrate new security features, while also making the coin lighter, stronger and longer-lasting. It also became much cheaper to produce.

There have been 20 editions. One glows in the dark

Since the toonie has been part of Canada’s coinage, there have been 20 different designs commemorating notable events and anniversaries. The first special edition, in 1999, marked the founding of Nunavut with an Innuit drummer on the reverse.

In 2017, the Mint released the world’s first glow-in-the-dark circulation coin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Confederation (it’s also the world’s first coloured bimetallic coin). On this special edition toonie, two canoeists paddle under green and blue northern lights that glow in the dark, thanks to luminescent ink.

A special tribute toonie, honouring the death of Queen Elizabeth, features the original coin design and replaces the outer ring with a black nickel “mourning” band. 

Watch out for the “Beaded Twoonie”

When it comes to collecting rare or valuable toonies, there are a few options to watch for. The 1996 “Beaded Twoonie,” which has a border of beading around the edges of both sides of the coin, is especially rare. Just four of these mysterious coins have been tracked down. It’s not known whether these pieces were intended to be an experimental or alternative design — there’s no paper trail to confirm. One of these beaded “almost uncirculated” curiosities was sold at auction in 2021 for $4700.

[Read our blog: What makes a good coin investment?]

The history of Canada’s striking $2 coin may be relatively short, but it’s both colourful and curious. And with between 10 and 30 million of the coins being minted every year, the toonie will be with us for years to come. 

Start your own collection of historic Canadian coins

If you’re interested in starting your own collection of Canadian and international coins, we can help. Century Stamp & Coin has a huge collection of coins and a knowledgeable and experienced team to support you with building your very own coin collection.