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5 Stories Every Canadian Should Know: The History Behind the 5-cent Coin

It is hard to spot, yet nickel is part of our everyday life. We see it without noticing; we hold it and rely on it without even knowing. From batteries and buildings to healthcare and hardware, nickel is one of the world’s most versatile and essential elements. Hundreds of thousands of products that we use daily are made of nickel, and coins are no exception!

A nickel is born 

At the turn of the 20th century, coins (penny aside) made for the Dominion of Canada were made of silver. The smallest of the lot and most inconvenient to manage was the 5-cent. A decision to make it larger meant changing its silver composition to nickel. And with this much welcomed change, Canada’s first true “Nickel” was coined in 1922.

The 5-cent piece saw many changes between the year 1922 and 1945, but an everlasting one came in 1937 with the introduction of the classic beaver motif designed by Kruger-Gray. Upon seeing the image of this iconic Canadian animal, officials considered its use for the 10-cent coin.

Instead, it found a permanent home on the 5-cent piece. Since its introduction, the coin’s beaver design has been replaced with unique commemorative themes on five occasions only. The first time came in 1943.

V is for Victory

The letter V represents the Roman numeral 5, but from 1943 to 1945, its significance was much more profound. It rallied nations and inspired people across the globe. It meant ‘victory’. As the end of the Second World War neared, a new design turned Canada’s 5-cent coin into a symbol of hope and peace. The Victory Nickel.  

A Morse code pattern surrounding a torch and the letter V, symbols for sacrifice and victory, read “We Win When We Work Willingly”. Using only small sculpting tool and a piece of steel that was slightly larger than today’s toonie, Chief Engraver of the Royal Canadian Mint, Thomas Shingles carved the entire design by hand. A feat very few engravers are capable of, but one that was necessary at a time when resources were scarce.

Former Chief Engraver of the Royal Canadian Mint, Thomas Shingles in the early 1940s

This accomplishment marked the first time in our history of minting, that a coin’s master dies and punches were made in Canada (vs. in Britain).

War Efforts

The coin’s design transformation also meant an inevitable change to its metal composition.
During that period, the use of nickel for coinage was suspended in an effort to conserve it for the production of wartime commodities: artillery, armor, and airplanes to name a few.

In 1942, the 5-cent coin went from being made of nickel to tombac (an alloy of copper and zinc). However, the change was not immediate and for this reason, collectors can find two versions of the 1942 coin: one made of nickel, the other of tombac. How to spot the difference? It’s colour. 

Two versions of the 1942 5-cent coin: one made of nickel, the other of tombac.

The coins made of tombac tarnished quickly, giving them the same bronze colour of a 1-cent coin. This caused a lot of confusion on whether the coin was a nickel or a penny. Luckily, the solution was simple. Make it 12-sided! The new dodecagon shape was so popular that it was kept until 1963. 

Nickel fades, but the name lives on

By 1950, Canada had become the world’s largest nickel producer. A coincidental timing, as 1951 marked the 200th anniversary of the discovery and naming of the element, which Canada commemorated with a new design on that year’s 5-cent coin. 

1951 striking ceremony for the commemorative 5-cent circulation coin

Despite the country’s role in nickel production, its use in the making of the 5-cent coin gradually decreased as cost-saving measures and advancements in coining technologies evolved. By 1982, the Canadian “Nickel” was no longer made of pure nickel. 

Even though nickel—the element that gave the 5-cent coin its nickname—is not the main material found in the coin today, the beloved term “Nickel” continues to be part of our everyday language.

You said there were five?

So far, we have looked at two of the five designs that shaped our “Nickel’s” history. What about the remaining three? See below to learn about them. 

100th anniversary of Confederation (1967) 60th anniversary of Victory Nickel (2005) 150th anniversary of Confederation (2017)
1967 nickel 2005 nickel 2017 nickel
The 1967 five-cent circulation coin design by Canadian artist Alex Colville to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Confederation and features a hopping rabbit.  The 2005 five-cent circulation coin honours the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and features the coin’s original design by Thomas Shingles. The 2017 five-cent circulation coin, Living Traditions by Gerald Gloade is part of the 2017 My Canada, My Inspiration coin contest that celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

Pay tribute to Canada’s 5-cent coin in 2022:

You can also discover the history behind Canada’s 10-cent circulation coin here.

Image credit: A special thanks to the © Bank of Canada Museum for the use of images dated 1967 and earlier from their Collection.

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