Musings of a Magpie Mind: “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”

(Bits and pieces of history, travel and trivia, collected over the years by Bill Greenwell)

That dark, desperate Broadway song from the Great Depression of the early ‘30s popped into my head the other evening, during our return flight from Winnipeg. The family get-together with my in-laws had been the usual fun time of feasting and fellowship that always makes the trip so worthwhile. And the full itinerary they had arranged for us included a couple of attractions not visited on previous occasions. A must-see of course was the new Museum Of Human Rights. Inside and out, it is spectacular, although I found the theme of constant recrimination a little hard to take.

The shameful litany of “man’s inhumanity to man” (to quote Robbie Burns) over the last couple of centuries is not meant to entertain, and it didn’t. It was a sobering reminder of past and present wrongs. So although I applaud this very worthy initiative, which is dedicated to the memory of the city’s media mogul Israel Asper, (who was instrumental in launching the project), I tended to agree with one local critic who said that the whole place smacked more of mausoleum than museum. But my carping comments got zero support around the dinner table that evening, so instead we talked about our plans for the following day.

Happily that was very different. Our visit to the Royal Canadian Mint cheered me up considerably. And as I reminisced on the experience with my wife during the flight home, she pointed out that money in the form of coinage, might be worth musing over in my next magpie column. So let me offer a few thoughts on the subject, and as usual, history is a good place to start.

It seems that once again, the ancient Chinese had a head start on everybody else, as copper coins have been unearthed from four thousand year-old tombs of the Shang Dynasty. But it was the early Mediterranean and Islamic cultures that introduced precious metals of gold and silver into their currencies. Perhaps the most memorable beneficiary of this development around that time was our old friend, the royal and immensely wealthy Croesus. We all know how well off he was and the expression “as rich as Croesus” is still part of our language.

The emergence of Rome as the dominant power in the region brought a disciplined system to the minting and distribution of coinage, but soon counterfeiters, (often called the second oldest profession in the world), were everywhere. Punishment for first offence was the loss of a hand, and if you were caught at it again, execution was swift. The Brits as late as 1690 took an even harsher approach. Thomas Rodgers was hanged, drawn and quartered and his wife burnt alive for clipping coins in order to make counterfeits from the pieces they saved. They were deemed to have committed a crime against the state and that was tantamount to treason.

The precious metal content of any state-issued coinage generally reflected the health of the country’s economy because of what it could buy. Back in the days before Jesus of Nazareth began preaching his ministry, when he was still in his teens, the mighty Caesar Augustus decreed that the new denarius coin would be made almost entirely of silver. But in the decades following, the financial well-being of Rome declined, primarily because it cost so much money to maintain the massive army that kept the rebellious provinces in subjugation.

By 280 A.D. the denarius was 98 per cent copper with a thin silver wash on the surface. The implication was very clear to every citizen: the coin they held in their hands was a physical manifestation of the Empire’s deepening desperation.

Whatever proclamation the current Caesar might make, the little coin told the harsh truth. And that same story has been repeated throughout history. High inflation and the debasement of any coin’s content inevitably diminished its value, lowered its buying power and also destroyed the confidence of the people who received payment in it.

The advent of paper money didn’t help much either, although 100 years ago, each bank note was meant as a reassuring reference document, because its face value was supposedly backed by reserves of gold bullion secreted in state vaults. That guarantee hasn’t existed for a long time, and today in the age of computer technology, money has increasingly become an abstraction. We’ve created the ATM to pop out cash, debit and credit cards to buy things and delay payment of what we owe, plus electronic transfers to move money around the globe in the twinkling of an eye.

Although they do their best to hide the fact, the world’s central bankers and treasury controllers are reputed to be in a state of quiet panic, because these days money is quite uncontrollable. They have no idea how much of it is out there, at least in all its digital forms. A few years ago most of us Canadians were spectators to the result of this ignorance and to the lack of enforceable rules and effective government monitoring. We witnessed in disbelief the unfettered greed and unscrupulous actions of so many financial institutions south of the border, with the twisted priorities of Wall Street at the core of all these shenanigans. And we sympathised with the victims and their supporters who eventually marched in protest, though by then it was much too late to mend the situation.

Fortunately in this country, our stricter financial regulations shielded us from most of this corporate hanky-panky and provided a veneer of stability in the banking sector. But as many of our chartered institutions also dabbled in the toxic subprime mortgage market, they got burned too and so did their shareholders. Bruce Livesey’s investigative reporting which resulted in his expose: “The Thieves of Bay Street” is sobering reading. It chronicles the avarice, the lies, the cover-ups and the moral laxity of so many senior people in our own financial hierarchy. The book was an eye-opener for me and I recommend it.

So, while a major focus these days is on human rights, and there’s a new federally subsidized museum to prove it, let’s press our leaders to close ALL the loopholes against those who enrich themselves at the expense of others. Such protection is a basic right too, because history is full of financial scams, more than enough to fill a whole vast floor in that stunning Winnipeg building.

But now let’s talk about our visit to the Royal Canadian Mint. There’s nothing abstract about what it produces — mostly tons and tons of cold hard cash and many of the minerals they use are mined here in Canada. Built in 1976, its contemporary pyramid shape thrusts its way out of the flat prairie plain and is visible for miles. The closer we got to it, the more we were impressed, and the flags of 70-odd international customers on tall white poles that lined the curved driveway, promised us a very different experience.

The whole huge place sits in colourful landscaping and once inside it exudes state of the art technology. And it was refreshing to learn that our Mints — this one in Winnipeg, the headquarters operation in Ottawa and the busy retail outlet in downtown Vancouver — don’t rely on taxpayer dollars to fund their operations. As a Crown corporation there’s only one shareholder – the Government of Canada.

We started out with a quick look around at ground level, then attached ourselves to one of the frequent guided tours and ended up in the wide, glass-walled walkways that run the length of the building. They overlook the whole production line, (including the gleaming 50-ton presses that spit out a thousand coins per second), and our excellent guide, who had a ready answer to our many questions, took us through each stage, explaining how the material mostly comes in as raw sheet metal and pops out eventually as spending money for Canadians and for a wide variety of foreign customers in their own currency.

If you’re impressed by numbers, the Winnipeg Mint has them in spades. With over 700 employees, it pumps out two billion coins each year — over 55 billion since it opened. And although most of those are the sort that jingle in our pockets, there is a constant demand by investors and bullion collectors for the special and limited edition silver and gold mintings that carry the Maple Leaf rating, with the latter reaching the astonishing level of 99.999 purity! And of course there are all sorts of coins designed and issued to commemorate special occasions and sporting events, here and around the world. They are much sought-after by collectors and there’s always a colourful selection for sale in the showcases on the way out of the building. Apparently the Mint web site does a very healthy business too.

Now, with all that money concentrated in one place, what about security? We asked the question of course and were assured that it’s very tight, but mostly unseen, except for the affable but very large guard at the exit door. We chatted with him and noticed he was clad in body armour, festooned with communication equipment and carried a conspicuous 9mm Glock pistol, holstered on his belt.

And the age-old threat of counterfeiters is apparently a constant consideration for the Mint. For instance, when it was decided to phase out the smaller denomination bank notes in the 1980s, the new dollar coin was originally designed to show the sovereign’s head on one side and an image of a voyageur canoe on the other. The master die was made and shipped off to Ottawa, but catastrophe! It disappeared en route and has never been found! What a mystery, not to mention an embarrassment. So it was back to the drawing board, and after much debate the common loon was chosen to replace the lost original. That coin has since been minted in its millions, and seven years after its introduction, when the two dollar bank note was phased out, the attractive bronze and nickel Toonie took its place. Is the five dollar bill next, I wonder?

So, after that fascinating afternoon at the Royal Canadian Mint we headed home, duly impressed. The international reputation this operation has achieved over the years and its major contribution to the world of currency is a source of pride. The whole experience opened our eyes to the insatiable global appetite for coinage, a very ancient commodity that still plays an essential role in these modern times. The tour was great and cost us only a few cents, but although that little coin doesn’t exist anymore, just like Croesus, it will be part of our language for a long time to come.

(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)