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That time the Sault went loonie for a week

This week, we remember the one-time week-long festival held to celebrate the loonie coin designed by local artist Robert-Ralph Carmichael
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For one week in 1989, the city of Sault Ste. Marie went a little loonie.

Back in 1986, the Federal Government announced plans to replace the Canadian one-dollar bill with a coin. As we know, the coin was quickly dubbed the Loonie. The first loonies entered circulation on June 30, 1987, but for a 21-month period, the Bank of Canada produced one-dollar coins and one-dollar bills concurrently.

The Canadian government was nervous that Canadians would reject the coins en masse, similar to how our American neighbours had refused to support the Susan B. Anthony one-dollar coin in 1979.

The government hoped that people would welcome the cost-saving benefits of the loonie. Because coins last a lot longer, it was estimated the switch would save taxpayers approximately 175 million dollars over twenty years. Despite this, support from Canadian citizens for the loonie was mixed at best because, well, who wants to walk around with a bunch of coins in their pockets?

Various polls in 1988 and 1989 offered conflicting data over whether support for the new loonie coin was on the rise, or in decline.

Federal Supply and Services Minister Paul Dick cited a government-commissioned poll showing that 60 per cent of 1,000 people polled approved of the loonie. In contrast, another series of Gallup polls indicated that support for the new coin was below 40 per cent. And, according to a Globe and Mail poll, Canadians were hoarding loonies, retailers were hesitant to use them, and public support for the new coin was dropping.

In Sault Ste. Marie, however, support for the loonie was a lot higher than the national average. That’s because the now famous portrait of the loon on the new coin was designed by local artist Robert-Ralph Carmichael, who was born in Sault Ste. Marie and lived near Echo Bay.

Naturally, the citizens of Sault Ste. Marie and Echo Bay were proud of Carmichael’s great accomplishment, and therefore they wanted to do everything they could to show their support for the loonie.

A local organization known as Hospitality and Travel Sault Ste. Marie (HATS), working in cooperation with Sault Ste. Marie’s business, finance and arts community, decided to organize a week-long festival in celebration of the new coin. Organizers hoped that the event would not only recognize Carmichael’s important contribution to the history of Canada’s monetary system but also remind people of the new coin’s ties to Sault Ste. Marie and Echo Bay.

Loonie Week started on June 5, 1989. Some of the events of the week included a Loonie Balloon Release, a Loonie Trivia Contest, a Loonie Tunes Contest, Take a Loonie to Lunch, a Senior’s dance, and a dinner at the Art Gallery of Ontario in honour of Robert Carmichael. The week came to a close on Saturday, June 10, 1989, with two larger events: A Loonie Call Contest and a Loonie Parade.

The Loonie Call Contest was held at Trout Lake Marina and drew a crowd of about 150 people. Earl Hansen, the managing director of HATS, stated that the participants in the contest showed great talent, quipping “If I were a loonie I would have come”.

The Loonie Parade was held on Queen Street. The parade featured smaller car-towed trailers rather than the transport type of float. There may not have been a large number of participants in the parade, but the floats were inventive, there were plenty of costumed characters, and the event had lots of music.

Loonie week garnered a fair bit of media attention, with both CBC and CTV covering some of the events. Other media outlets also picked up the story, and the event was covered as far away as Alberta.

Event organizers were pleased, feeling that the festival had achieved its desired result: Letting the rest of Canada know about the Sault’s special relationship with the loonie.

HATS considered making Loonie Week an annual event, but it was not to be. The final Canadian one-dollar bill was produced on June 30, 1989, and the Bank of Canada gradually removed existing one-dollar bills from circulation. The lack of alternatives forced Canadians to accept the coin, and both excitement and debate over the new coin slowly faded. Thus, Loonie Week ended up being a one-time event.

HATS was dissolved when it merged with the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation in 1992. Robert-Ralph Carmichael passed away on July 16, 2016.

Nevertheless, the erection of the Echo Bay “Big Loonie” Monument in 1992 has ensured that Carmichael’s best-known work will always be remembered. And every tourist who sees the Big Loonie will forever associate the Sault and Echo Bay with the one-dollar coin.

For more on Robert Carmichael and the strange twist of fate that led to his design being chosen for the one-dollar coin, check out this ‘Remember This?’ article.