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Does making cents make sense
by Robin Summerfield

The proposed demise of Canada's copper coin brings jeers and cheers

Loonie by loonie, quarter by quarter, nickel by nickel and, yes, penny by penny, the Salvation Army's Christmas Kettle Campaign raised $1.1 million in Calgary last holiday season.

If the penny's status as legal tender is revoked by Jan. 1, 2009 -- as New Democrat MP Pat Martin proposed it should in a private member's bill introduced Wednesday in the House of Commons -- then donations will drop too, predicts the campaign co-ordinator Rizwan Nathoo.

"The demise of the penny would have significant impact."

While he couldn't predict by how much, Nathoo wondered if people would be more inclined to drop more nickels in lieu of those pennies, or less change altogether.

The unassuming penny -- the steel, nickel and copper one-cent coin stashed away in Mason jars, long-forgotten in dresser coin trays and largely ignored on sidewalks across Canada -- is under threat.

Martin said Wednesday the penny, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, costs too much money to make and languishes underneath people's beds, in cookie jars and biscuit tins.

As Martin quipped on Wednesday: "Making cents makes no sense."

He was referring to the $130 million it costs the Royal Canadian Mint every year to keep billions of pennies in circulation every year. Even though there's 20 billion pennies in circulation in Canada, last year, the Mint had to produce 1.2 billion more new pennies because the coin is often hoarded more than spent, he said.

And that just doesn't make any sense, Martin argued.

New Zealand, Australia and a handful of other countries have done away with the penny, Canada should be next, he argued.

Martin estimated 20 million pennies -- about 60,000 tonnes worth -- aren't in circulation. And with copper and other metal prices at record highs, coins dating from before 1997 could fetch double their weight if melted down (although that is illegal).

Yes, there's a lot stacking up against the humble coin.

"The penny is just a pain in the butt. People won't bend to pick it up in the streets, so that's the value they place in them," says Robert Kokotailo, co-owner of Calgary Coin, a local coin dealer.

Inflation has made the penny irrelevant, the cost to make them is too high and people just don't care about them, he says.

There's more: "There's nothing you could buy for a penny. The only thing we need it for is to make change for the tax."

Retailers could easily change their pricing to adapt to the loss of the one-cent coin, he says.

"The cent has served its purpose," agrees Michael Walsh, president of the Canadian Numismatic Association, in Vancouver. (The association was started in 1950 and has about 2,000 members across the country.)

"It's an impractical thing," Walsh says, arguing that the rising value of bullion may soon make it cost ineffective to produce each coin, which according to the Royal Canadian Mint is about .08 of a cent per penny.

Studies suggest the real cost of producing a one-cent coin today is more like four cents.

Meanwhile, at University of Calgary's Nickle Arts Museum, acting director and numismatics curator Geraldine Chimirri-Russell says we shouldn't get too nostalgic over the loss of the penny, if that time ever comes.

"Change (evolution) is a process in the production of money and that's something we have to acknowledge." she says.

"Things move, things change, economies change, we do change and numismatically (the end of the one-cent coin) makes sense and that which is left behind is an historical record," she says.

"The one-cent piece will always be there. It will always be viable. It will always be interesting," Chimirri-Russell adds.

Which, in a sense, is good news for real Pennys everywhere, the walking, breathing ones who face the demise of the coin they were named after.

For her part Penny Farfan, a University of Calgary English and drama professor, will be sad the day the penny dies, she says.

To wit: A favourite 1988 painting by Richard Prince lives on her fridge in the form of a postcard. It reads, "I never had a penny to my name so I changed my name."

"I'm not sure the painting will seem quite as witty if there are no more pennies left in the world," Farfan says, "so in that respect it will certainly be a sorry day if the penny is abolished."

Meanwhile, elsewhere on campus inside the U of C's provost's office, executive assistant Penny Bardsley said she likes her name, which her father gave her.

And no, she won't feel less valuable if the penny ends its run in Canada for good and passes into history and coin collections everywhere.

Yet, there's one upside, Bardsley admits.

She'll never again have to hear that one particularly annoying phrase -- penny pinching.


Cents-Ible Trivia

- Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, France and Spain are all countries that have given up the penny.

- Before 1876, Canada used pennies minted in England.

- It is estimated there are 20 billion pennies -- 60,000 tonnes -- that aren't in circulation.

- To reduce production costs, the mint has shrunk the size and the content of the penny, moving from a coin the size of a quarter made of copper to the shrunken coin of today that is 94 per cent steel.

Penny-Wise Expressions:

- Penny wise, pound foolish.

- A penny spent is a penny earned.

- In for a penny, in for a pound.

- Put in your two cents.

- The penny drops.

- It costs a pretty penny.

- Take care of the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves.

Quotes from New Democrat MP Pat Martin, who is determined to see the country penniless.

- "You don't see a dish of free loonies."

(Referring to the trays beside so many cash registers.)

- "Making cents makes no sense."

(It costs about $130 million to produce pennies every year.)


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