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For the week of Monday, July 13, 2015

On July 19, 1937, the Bank of Canada issued its first bilingual currency. This was the culmination of several currency revisions that began before Confederation. It was also a major development in the history of bilingualism in Canada.

$1 bill from the 1937 series
© National Currency Collection – Bank of Canada, Ottawa
Before Confederation in 1867, the British colonies that would one day become Canada each regulated their own currency. Chartered banks issued their own notes in English or French depending on the laws of their respective colony. Early forms of bank notes were often used freely between colonies even though some had different currencies. To add to the confusion, in many early communities, certain foreign currencies including Spanish and American coins were considered legal tender. However, after 1821 the only accepted currencies in British North America were the British sterling and Halifax currency.

In 1841, Upper and Lower Canada united to become the province of Canada. The 1866 Provincial Notes Act allowed the Province of Canada to begin issuing its own notes alongside the private bank notes already in circulation. Confederation gave the new Dominion Government control over banking and finance. As more provinces joined Confederation they switched to Canadian currency, although some, like Nova Scotia, opted to keep their own. This issue of too many currencies was resolved by the 1871 Uniform Currency Act, which converted provincial currencies into Canadian dollars.

The Old Bank of Canada NHS was used for its Toronto agency from 1937-1951
© Parks Canada Agency

The Finance Act of 1914 was a step towards centralized banking by giving the federal government some of the powers of a central bank. For example, the federal government could be a lender of last resort to private banks. Twenty years later, the Bank of Canada was established with its head office in Ottawa. It provided bank notes for all of the provinces within Confederation and gave chartered banks 25 years to phase out their notes. The first series of currency issued by the Bank of Canada in 1935 featured separate English and French notes. It was not until the second series in 1937, after changes to the Bank of Canada Act, that both languages were printed on the same notes.

Bilingual currency pre-dates official bilingualism in Canada. It was not until after the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963 that federal services became officially bilingual. The Old Bank of Canada in Toronto, used by the Bank for its Toronto agency, was designated a national historic site in 1958. For more about the Bank of Canada visit Bennett's New Deal or the Bank of Canada Museum’s website. To learn more about the establishment of bilingualism in Canada, read Canadian Wins Nobel Peace Prize in the This Week in History archives.

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