OTD: Macdonald coin marks 200th anniversary of first prime minister’s birth

On today’s date in 2015, a $2 commemorative circulation coin honouring Sir John A. Macdonald, one of the Fathers of Confederation and Canada’s first prime minister, was unveiled by the Royal Canadian Mint in Kingston, Ont.

Designed by the Vancouver artist Glen Green, the coin’s reverse features a portrait of Macdonald on the toonie’s inner core plus a modern map of Canada in the background and extending to the outer core. The reverse of the outer ring also includes the dates 1815 and 2015 alongside micro-engraved maple leaves and laser etching.

“His profoundly influential story as a historic nation-builder and fierce defender of our values and borders now has a permanent place on a circulation coin which will touch Canadians from coast to coast to coast,” said then-finance minister Joe Oliver.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper attended the event, offering remarks on Macdonald’s accomplishments as a nation builder.

“Never forget, there was nothing certain or inevitable about what Macdonald and his fellow fathers of Confederation accomplished. It was, in fact, remarkable,” said Harper to a room full of dignitaries, including two former prime ministers, John Turner and Kim Campbell.

“Without Sir. John A. Macdonald, Canada as we know it — the best country in the world — simply would not exist.”

The issue marked the 200th anniversary of the influential politician’s birthday with five million coins struck as part of a series leading up to the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

The obverse of the 2015-dated $2 commemorative circulation coin depicts Queen Elizabeth II.


It’s worth noting Macdonald’s exact birthdate is a bit of a mystery; while his birth record – which also misspells the family surname as “McDonald” – cites Jan. 10, 1815, as the date of his birth, his father’s journal lists Jan. 11, which was the day he and his family would celebrate.

Arriving in Canada as a small child, Macdonald first practiced law before entering local and then provincial politics. He participated in both the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences, which laid the groundwork for Confederation, and was either prime minister or leader of the opposition from the formation of Canada until his death on June 6, 1891.

After he died in office in 1891, Macdonald laid in state in the capital of the fledgling nation as thousands paid their respects. Many more lined the tracks to watch a train return his body to Kingston.


In addition to the $2 commemorative circulation coin, the Mint also issued three collector coins—two in silver and another gold.

One of the silver pieces has a $10 face value and shows a three-quarter length portrait of Macdonald. Designed by Joel Kimmel, it features selective plating applied to the portrait.

The second silver coin has a $20 value and shows a close-up portrait of Macdonald with patterns of maple leaves to both sides. In the background are the first Canadian parliament buildings, which officially opened in 1866 before being destroyed by fire in 1916 and later rebuilt with a slightly different look.

Only the Parliamentary Library – to the rear of the centre block – survived the fire.

Designed by William Lazos, this coin bears a single date of 2015.

Lastly, a $100 coin struck in 14-karat (58.3 per cent) gold was also designed by Green and pays tribute to the role of the railway in forming modern Canada.

Considered one of Macdonald’s crowning achievements, the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway linking British Columbia to the rest of Canada played a pivotal role in bringing that province into Confederation in 1871.

The reverse design shows a portrait of Macdonald, a map of Canada, the dates 1815 and 2015 plus a steam locomotive – Canadian Pacific’s #374 – that pulled the first transcontinental passenger train arriving in Vancouver in 1887.


In recent years, Macdonald’s legacy has come under the spotlight for his role in “clearing the plains” of Indigenous communities and establishing the residential school system, which forcefully removed 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children away from their communities and families.

Governments across the country have discussed removing Macdonald’s name from public buildings and removing statues erected in his honour.

In 2018, the City of Victoria in British Columbia spent $30,000 to remove one statue as a symbol of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous communities.

Last August, the Macdonald Monument in Montréal was toppled during a roughly 200-person protest. The toppling of the statue in Place du Canada was denounced as an act of vandalism by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Montréal Mayor Valérie Plante and Québec Premier François Legault.

“Whatever one might think of John A. MacDonald, destroying a monument in this way is unacceptable,” Legault tweeted on Aug. 29. “We must fight racism, but destroying parts of our history is not the solution. Vandalism has no place in our democracy and the statue must be restored.”

A statement issued by Plante added: “I understand and share the motivation of citizens who want to live in a more just and inclusive society. But the discussion and the necessary actions must be carried out peacefully, without ever resorting to vandalism.”

The mayor’s office estimated the cost of restoring the statue to be at least $400,000.

The statue’s head was also severed by anonymous activists in 1992, possibly to commemorate the anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel on Nov. 16, 1885, according to a Montreal Gazette report.

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