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The prime-minister sides of the new $5 and $10 polymer bills, held by Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney. Former prime minister Wilfrid Laurier features on the $5 bill and first prime minister John A. Macdonald is on the $10.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Bank of Canada launched its banknotes from outer space as Commander Chris Hadfield revealed a new astronaut-themed five dollar bill.

"These new polymer notes show us the kinds of things we can accomplish when we really put our minds to it," he said via satellite at a news conference in Ottawa, where Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney were on hand. "It really marks Canada's contribution to the International Space Station program and especially to our long-time expertise in robotics."

Focus groups

The bills may be new, but some people say one of the designs is too old-fashioned and the other, too cartoonish. Focus groups that were consulted about the space motif on the proposed design of the $5 bill, said it looked childish, according to a 2009 Strategic Counsel report commissioned by the bank. The train motif, on the other hand, left some people yawning. "While the image is seen as attractive, many do not find it inspiring or motivating. It is seen as an archetypal image of Canada's past – standard or expected," the report said.

Remember the loon?

Both the new $5 and $10 bills present a mastery over nature, a train plowing through the mountains and the Canadarm2 building the International Space Station. Some say these images represent a trend away from the more traditional Canadian picture of nature, like the loon or beaver. Hayden King is Potawatomi and Ojibwa writer and academic from Beausoleil First Nation. He says that increasingly Canadian currency is moving away from symbols and references of the natural world and indigenous people and toward notions of progress, technology and domination. "We are purging the natural world from our currency," he says. "And instead we are illustrating dominance." The 1986 "Birds of Canada" series featured the osprey, common loon, snowy owl and Canada goose, among others.

Canada vs. Norway

Look closely. Is this a Canadian maple leaf that grew on the tree in your backyard? Some botanists believe it represents a maple of a different variety – the Norway maple. Douglas Justice, of the UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research, has studied maple leaves all over the world. "If you were to flash it in front of a botanist, almost any botanist would say it looks like a Norway maple," he says. The Norway maple is an invasive species to Eastern Canada. "You wonder sometimes if anyone is checking up on these things," Mr. Justice says. The Bank of Canada maintains that the leaf is a stylized blend of different Canadian maple leaves.


The new polymer notes will last 2.5 times longer than the outgoing paper variety, reducing the environmental impact of manufacturing. They are the most durable banknotes ever issued by the Bank of Canada.


The new polymer notes contain multiple features that will make them easier to check for authenticity and harder to counterfeit. Transparency, holography, raised ink and other security features are included in the new polymer bills. Last year, 44,931 counterfeit Canadian banknotes were discovered in circulation, according to a report by the RCMP. It was a drastic decrease of 92 per cent from the peak of counterfeit circulation in 2004. Yet it's still a large pot of money – about $1.6-million in counterfeit money was passed in 2012. So far, there is no knowledge of a successful counterfeit polymer note in Canada.

Technical difficulties?

Many cash-handling machines such as banknote counters, ABMs, self-serve kiosks and vending machines required an upgrade to recognize the new polymer notes when they were released last year. In November of 2012, Toronto's GO Transit and Vancouver's TransLink reported that neither was able to process the new polymer notes in their ticket-vending machines. As of February this year, GO Transit upgraded all 24 of their machines and have had no further difficulties with the material. The Bank of Canada says the software upgrades are typical when new notes are introduced. They send equipment manufacturers samples of banknotes so they can test their equipment months before the bills are put into circulation.