The Canadian Penny has been made from copper-plated steel since 2000. The circulating Canadian Nickel, Dime, and Quarter are all currently made from nickel-plated steel, although the Dime was made of pure nickel from 1968 to 2000. Like the U.S., Canada has a Half Dollar denomination that very rarely circulates, and which is only struck for Mint sets currently. The Canadian Dollar coin is very nearly the same size and color as its U.S. counterpart, but again made from very different metals. The One Dollar "Loonie" is 11-sided and made from an alloy the Royal Canadian Mint calls "aureate" (bronze-plated nickel.) As noted before, the Two Dollar "Toonie" is bi-metallic, having an outer ring of pure nickel, with a center made of a primarily copper alloy.
The Loonies and Toonies circulate in Canada as if things had always been this way. If I spent 89 cents and handed over a $5 note, I was as likely to get 2 Toonies, as I was 1 Toonie and 2 Loonies in my change, although I never got 4 Loonies. I noticed that most Canadian cash drawers don't have enough slots for all the coins (one of the big complaints we hear from U.S. Dollar coin skeptics is, "where will cashiers store the coins since there's no room in the cash drawers?") Canadian cashiers merely toss the Loonies and Toonies together in the same compartment, as they are easy to distinguish from each other, being of different sizes and colors. If Canada ever does away with its Penny, an issue that is as thorny for Canadians as it is for Americans, I suppose cashiers would use the empty coin spot to separate the $1 and $2 coins.
So, how did the Canadians succeed in getting these Dollar coins to circulate? Simple, they merely stopped producing the $1 banknote and it was a done deal. There was very little controversy or complaining; the government simply took action and people adjusted as needs must. Why Americans can't seem to take a similar step is a curious statement about our society. Even as we continue to hem and haw, the Canadians I asked said they'd be happy to see a $5 coin, too. Once they started using the higher-value coins, the Canadians I spoke to immediately saw the benefits and actually consider the paper $5 to be a nuisance now!
Another interesting observation during my Canadian trip was how U.S. currency circulates side by side with Canadian specie in many places, especially in transit centers and border cities. The Canadian and U.S. Dollars are about equal in value these days, and most Canadian merchants were taking U.S. Dollars at par value to Canadian Dollars for smaller purchases, although for a larger purchase I made, the merchant checked the Web for the latest exchange rate and did an exact calculation (but didn't charge any percentage for the transaction.) When purchases were made with U.S. Dollars, Canadian change was always given, with the Dollar notes being stashed under the change drawer. The merchants I asked said they didn't usually take U.S. pocket change unless it was all someone had, and they didn't mix it with their Canadian coinage. Since Canadian Dollars are worth more than U.S. Dollars these days, I was a little surprised not to see merchants trying to dump U.S. currency off on people who spent U.S. currency. (As of this writing, the Canadian Dollar is worth about 99 U.S. Cents.)
My single, most enduring impression of executing commerce in Canadian money was the ease with which the Loonies and Toonies changed hands. Indeed, it was a hassle to dig out my wallet to extract a $5 bill when it turned out that I didn't have a couple of Toonies in my pocket!
Have you visited Canada recently, or are you a Canadian who has visited the U.S.? Are the Loonies and Toonies easier or harder to use than paper money? Share your experiences with the different forms of Dollar currency in the Comments below.