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Paddling into History: Emanuel Hahn’s Voyageur Coin Design

by David Bergeron

A pencil sketch of a Canadian silver dollar coin with two men paddling a canoe.
Emanuel Hahn’s original sketch of the reverse for the proposed commemorative silver dollar, 1934. Paper, graphite pencil, 20cm x 17.8cm. Bank of Canada Museum, NCC: 1963.59.15.4

FOR DECADES, PEOPLE CARRIED THE FAMOUS VOYAGEUR DOLLAR in their pockets and purses. What was issued in 1935 as a special design for a commemorative coin ended up finding a place on Canada’s largest coin for more than fifty years. From 1935 to 1967, these coins were of silver, and from 1968 to 1987, when silver became too expensive for pocket change, they were reduced in size and struck in nickel. In 1987, the loonie replaced the $1 note from the Bank of Canada in a cost-saving measure: coins last much longer in circulation than paper bills. As a result, the Royal Canadian Mint relegated the image of two men paddling a canoe to occasional anniversary and commemorative collector coins. Collectors and numismatists around the world are nostalgic for the iconic design created by renowned German-Canadian sculptor, Emanuel Otto Hahn. The loonie is now the standard coin, but the Voyageur silver dollar remains an important piece of Canadiana.

The want of a silver dollar was a long time coming. Back in 1910, MPs from British Columbia petitioned the government for a silver dollar. Westerners preferred coins–hard currency–to paper money, a habit instilled since the discovery of gold in California and the Klondike. Legislation governing currency in Canada was amended to accommodate a silver dollar for circulation, equipment was purchased to mint a large-size coin, and new dies cut and sent from the Royal Mint in England to its Ottawa branch for production. Alas, plans for a silver dollar in 1911 fell through. Without any details or explanation, a statement in the Royal Mint’s 1911 annual report simply read: “The dollar piece was not struck.”

Fast forward 23 years and the idea of a silver dollar resurfaced. In 1934, Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett announced the production of a silver dollar for circulation. The theme of the coin would be King George V’s silver jubilee, his 25th Anniversary as reigning monarch. Officials at the Royal Canadian Mint (incorporated in 1931 after the Royal Mint transferred its operations) assembled a committee of high public officials and artists to contract and approve the production of a special commemorative silver dollar; the first silver dollar for circulation in Canada. With the technical details and project scope in place, Finance Minister Edgar Nelson Rhodes approved the design for the obverse (face) of the coin, including the effigy and the legend. Time constraints, however, forced the government to dispense with a design competition. Instead, the committee commissioned Emanuel Hahn of Toronto to design the reverse (back) of the coin.

A black and white portrait of Emanuel Hahn, who wears circle framed glasses and is smoking a pipe.
Emanuel Hahn, c. 1930 Archives of Ontario, M.O. Hammond fonds

Emanuel Hahn was a celebrated Canadian sculptor whose work can be seen in the monuments of many Canadian cities. Born in Germany in 1881, Hahn immigrated to Canada as a child. He studied art, design, and modelling in Toronto and Germany, apprenticed as a sculptor and worked for companies producing bronze monuments. Toward the end of his career, he also taught at Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). Along with medals, postage stamps, and significant war memorials, Hahn designed some of Canada’s most distinctive and iconic coins. The Voyageur silver dollar, the Bluenose 10 cents, the Caribou 25-cent piece, and the 1939 silver dollar commemorating the Royal Visit of King George VI and Queen consort Elizabeth are all Hahn’s craft.

The committee provided broad guidelines for Hahn to follow, and he set about designing a model both complimentary to the obverse design commemorating the King’s reign and an exemplary Canadian subject: a caribou. Minister Rhodes, however, wanted something different. He proposed a fur trader and an Indigenous guide paddling a canoe. How or why he had this idea is not known, but the important role the voyageur played in the fur trade, exploring the frontier, and building economic and cultural ties with Indigenous communities merited recognition. The adventurous coureur des bois made for a romantic yet apropos scene to put on a coin, especially in the capable hands of a master sculptor. Hahn’s caribou design eventually made its appearance on the reverse of the 25-cent coin in 1937; Canadian quarters still bear this image today.

Emanuel Hahn drew on Minister Rhodes’s suggestion and submitted drawings that immediately received the approval of the committee and the Finance Minister himself. Within days, Hahn was busy sculpting the plaster model that served as the template for fabricating the steel dies to mint the silver coins. Hahn meticulously studied the subject matter for his model. A booklet on canoes was among his sketches and records donated to the Bank of Canada Museum in 1963 by the late sculptor’s spouse, Elizabeth Wyn Wood, also a renowned Canadian sculptor. 

Two images of a silver dollar coin. The left image shows a crowned bust of King George V facing the left, with GEORGIVS V REX IMPERATOR ANNO REGNI XXV around the edge. The right image shows two men paddling a canoe with the words Canada Dollar and the date, 1935.
A specimen example of the commemorative silver dollar featuring a crowned bust of King George V facing left, the legend GEORGIVS V REX IMPERATOR ANNO REGNI XXV around on the obverse, and Hahn’s Voyageur design on the reverse.

With the master dies in hand, delivered from the Royal Mint on January 3rd, 1935, the Royal Canadian Mint went into production. A proclamation giving the coin legal status went into effect on May 1st. Although there was some initial skepticism about the cost of handling and distributing such a large coin, the coin became very popular among Canadians. Over the year, the public took up the entire mintage. The official count was 428,707 coins; a significant number for a coin with a high purchasing power in 1935! With the exception of coins for a few historic events, such as Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation in 1949 or the Centennial of Confederation in 1967, Hahn’s image of a canoe-paddling voyageur and guide before an island with wind-swept pines and a sky shimmering with northern lights became the standard design for dollar coins.

An image of a coining production tool made of brass and black resin.
It is believed that Hahn’s Voyageur design was intended for the new circulation coin in 1987. This production tool shows the design with an 11-sided beaded border matching the shape of the loon dollar. A partial date only adds to the speculation! Royal Canadian Mint, coining tool, 1987 Brass, resin, 13.9cm x 2.5cm Bank of Canada Museum, NCC: 2010.58.131 Photo credit: Gord Carter

An interesting anecdote about the adoption of the loon (hence the nickname “loonie”) for the reverse of the new circulating dollar in 1987 deserves recounting. The Royal Canadian Mint intended to use the Voyageur design on the new circulating dollar. However, the master dies were lost in transit from its design facility in Ottawa to its production plant in Winnipeg. A full RCMP investigation into the matter provided no leads. In anticipation of the launch of the new coin, the sensational story of the missing dies made the news. The incident even led to a Parliamentary hearing that amounted to recommendations for the secure shipment of tools and products for coining money. Because the dies were never recovered, an image of a loon by Robert-Ralph Carmichael replaced Hahn’s voyageur to preserve the integrity of the coin. The only remaining evidence of the Royal Canadian Mint’s plan to use the Voyageur design for the new coin is a production tool called an intermediate, which was among material transferred to the Bank of Canada Museum in 2010. The brass tool depicts Hahn’s model framed within an 11-sided beaded border; the circulating loonie is 11-sided.

Emanuel Hahn was the first Canadian artist engaged to design Canada’s currency. His popular and enduring coin designs paved the way for other artists, both professional and amateur, to collaborate with the Mint on new designs. Although the Royal Canadian Mint periodically issues a special collector coin featuring the Voyageur design, old Voyageur silver and nickel dollars are still available in abundance in coin collections and dealer inventories. Emanuel Hahn’s Voyageur design lives on! 

David Bergeron is Curator of the National Currency Collection – Bank of Canada Museum. The collection consists of over 130,000 objects mainly of money from Canada and around the world through all periods.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Ornamentum magazine. To purchase the issue or subscribe, head to our store.


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