THE loonie, that brassy bird inhabiting millions of pockets and purses across Canada, has turned 25 years old -- a milestone being marked by the Royal Canadian Mint with the release of a new silver collector coin that finally gives the lonely lake-dweller a swimming companion.
The anniversary recalls the bizarre events surrounding the birth of the one-dollar coin in 1987, when the templates for the intended design -- the classic canoe scene used for decades on Canada's silver dollar -- mysteriously went missing while being couriered between the mint's Ottawa headquarters and its Winnipeg production facility.
"They have never been found," the mint's communications director, Christine Aquino, told Postmedia News.
Concerned about the counterfeit risk, the mint scrapped plans for the canoe buck. The agency happened to have a proposed coin design in reserve -- a loon drifting along a northern shoreline, by Echo Bay, Ont., artist Robert Ralph Carmichael -- and scrambled to put that image on the first batch of metal dollars in time for the coin's scheduled, nationwide release on June 30, 1987.
In 1992, Echo Bay erected a giant statue of the coin -- the "Loon Dollar Monument" -- rivalling nearby Sudbury's famous Big Nickel.
The introduction of the 11-sided loonie "was the most significant change to Canada's coinage in over 50 years," said Aquino, noting the scrapping of the $1 bill vastly increased the lifespan of the average dollar and presaged the introduction of the polar bear "toonie" in 1996.
She said the switch to loonies was pushed by various interest groups across Canada, including transit companies eager to end the use of small-denomination paper money.
"Organizations for the visually impaired, which we consulted with quite extensively back then, really appreciated the coin's 11-sided shape," she added.
The coin went on achieve mythic status at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics when a "lucky loonie" was secretly placed at centre ice by Canadian icemaker Trent Evans ahead of the gold-medal match -- won by Canada over the hosting U.S., this country's first Olympic hockey title in 50 years.
Capitalizing on the story, the mint has struck special "lucky loonie" coins before each subsequent Olympic Games.
The loonie also made history in 2005 when Terry Fox -- the heroic one-legged runner whose 1980 Marathon of Hope raised millions of dollars for cancer research -- became the first Canadian-born individual depicted on a Canadian circulation coin. The 2005 loonie celebrated the 25th anniversary of Fox's epic marathon across Canada, which ended in Northern Ontario with a recurrence of his cancer. The illness claimed his life in 1981.
Earlier this year, after the minting of about 1.5 billion loonies since 1987, the coin was given its first major production makeover in a quarter-century.
The 2012 loonie is the first edition of the coin to be made of multi-ply, brass-plated steel -- at 6.27 grams, a slightly lighter composition than the original nickel-core loonie.
-- Postmedia News