For most of its life, the Royal Canadian Mint has had a relatively free-hand when it comes to designing coins.
What I mean, is that the corporation, and the government department that preceded that, really only had to worry about pleasing its government masters. For the most part, members of the general public have very little input into coin designs, unless it is through one of the occasional design competitions. Even more than that, most Canadians often don’t even know ahead of time what the subjects are for coins coming up in the future. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, we just have to wait and see.
Stamps on the other hand, are very different.
Just a few weeks ago, Canada Post announced the subjects of the stamps it plans to issue in 2015, and even provided the tentative launch months. For the whole year. What’s more, it isn’t at all unusual to see a stamp design made public weeks before the actual launch date. Now there is a risk involved, and sometimes issues get moved or cancelled, and there are sometimes surprise issues, but it mostly works.
There is another huge difference; both in Canada and the United States there are formal bodies, constituted by the postal authorities, with the express purpose of reviewing proposed subjects and designs, and then offering up their opinions.
In the United States, a similar committee meets, to evaluate the artistic merit of designs.
Now, as pretty as that system sounds on paper, it does have a few glitches. On both sides of the border, committees appointed and paid to advise, tend to get upset when their advice is ignored, or in some cases not even sought. It also adds another layer of bureaucracy, and further complicates the design process. For them, the whole procedure is even more complicated by the fact that their commemorative coins are usually created as a result of government legislation.
By contrast, the RCM has an easy process. Coin themes are picked in secret, coin designers are commissioned and then put to work in secrecy, and anyone who gets an official look at a coin has to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Agreement is still needed, at levels ranging from the minister responsible for the Mint, up to Buckingham Palace if a royal image is involved, but that is a lot different from trying to get consensus out of a committee.
Overall, I think the system is good because it gives the RCM some flexibility.
On the downside, I have little doubt that some coins are created as little more than revenue sources, with the designs dictated by little more than a desire to sell.
How else can you explain coins as striking as the award-winning canoe, $20 for $20, by artist Jason Bouwman, or as uninspiring as some of the lunar zodiac coins, credited only to a design firm?
Which system is better?
Ultimately it is a matter of personal taste. As for me, I think that our coins, both circulating and non-circulating, are more attractive than those of our southern neighbour. In fact I think they hold up well against any other country in the world.