Taxpayers are often grudging when they hand over their money to government, but there’s a special place where people literally throw cash into Ottawa’s coffers.
Wish-makers at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill toss as much as $6,000 each year into the bubbling fountain that has stood as an informal gathering place for almost half a century.
Toonies, loonies, quarters, dimes and nickels – along with doomed pennies – are regularly pitched through the dancing flames into a brass bucket submerged in the middle of the fountain.
And just as regularly, officially designated coin-scoopers show up to harvest the rain of change, armed with brushes, shovels and buckets.
On a wind-whipped, bitterly cold, November day, Public Works employees Robert Labonte and Martin Lafreniere-Parent gingerly lift the brass bucket out of the fountain, to the delight of a squealing grade-school group.
The bucket is carefully emptied into another container, and the pair then sweep and shovel any other rogue coins from the perimeter of the landmark fountain, built for the 1967 Centennial.
The stash of cash is then hauled into the basement of the Centre Block, where it’s churned like butter inside a kind of bingo tumbler for cleaning and sorting.
The tourist-tossed coins really fly in the summer, when Mr. Labonte and Mr. Lafreniere-Parent have to stoop and scoop the change almost every day. Fall and winter are much slower, but they’re still out there collecting every week or so.
An average of about $15 worth of coins splash every day into the water, which has roiled with flaming natural gas from Alberta for 45 years.
That’s 44 years longer than initially planned when then-prime minister Lester Pearson lit the flame on Jan. 1, 1967, for what was supposed to be a one-year run.
But people loved the fountain and flame, and it has remained to warm hearts and chilled hands for decades. The flame keeps the moving water warm enough year-round so that it never freezes.
Alas for Canada’s deficit-ridden government, the voluntary revenue from the fountain doesn’t stay in the federal treasury for long. Most of it – $5,750 this year – is competitively awarded to a disabled Canadian to complete a project showing the contributions of the disabled to the country and to Parliament.
The House of Commons keeps a floating balance of about $17,000 in its Centennial Flame Research Award Fund, created through an act of Parliament in 1991, and recipients are picked each fall by a Commons committee.
“Occasionally we’ll get souvenir buttons and souvenir pins, even some foreign coins,” says Bill Montgomery, an operations director with Public Works who supervises the fountain maintenance.
But he says visitors and cash-poor vagrants rarely misbehave around the Centennial Flame, located at one end of the walkway leading to the Peace Tower. “People respect the whole purpose of it.”
The sour odour of natural gas is strong, but school kids and other visitors welcome the warmed air pouring off the flame. A few loonies are tossed soon after Labonte and Lafreniere-Parent finish their haul.
“It’s kind of a nice round trip that the coins take,” Mr. Montgomery said in an interview.
“From someone making a wish, through Public Works, the House of Commons, to possibly granting a wish to some eligible Canadian who’s working to ... sensitize people to other Canadians with disabilities.”
The Centennial Flame fountain is divided into a dozen segments, each representing one of the 10 provinces and two territories in Confederation at the time of Canada’s 100th birthday. (Nunavut has not been added to the structure.) Each segment features a coat of arms and flower.