Canadian local trade tokens

Written on March 6, 2019

Throughout history, many tokens have been issued to be used only within certain locations. Maybe a token would only be valid at a certain store, or at the trading posts of a certain company, or within a certain province or state. Eventually, certain municipal governments started to create tokens or scrip (the paper version of tokens) that could be used within their town or city. Often this was done during economic hardship. For instance, during the economic struggles of World War I and its aftermath, cities and towns in war-torn France and Germany issued a plethora of local tokens, usually made of cheap metals such as iron, zinc, or aluminum. These were issued on an emergency basis because normal coins could not be shipped reliably during this war, as all the country's resources were being used to fight. It was only later in the 20th century that cities and towns would begin to issue local token currency for pleasure and novelty.

The focus of this article is on the local tokens issued in Canada, with the first known example to feature a distinct pictural design dating from 1959 (worth 25 cents in Cornwalil, Ontario). Previous tokens had featured nothing but words on them and had very little emphasis on design or aesthetic sensibility, making those issues closer to "store card" tokens and other earlier kinds of tokens. The first local trade tokens are quite chaotic in form and design, because every municipality had different goals in mind with its token program, but over time a stable pattern emerged that would see more than a thousand different trade tokens issued by hundreds of Canadian municipalities. Local tokens were first issued in Ontario in 1959, but the fad spread to British Columbia (Canada's westernmost province) by 1960 and from there to Alberta in 1963. Since then, every Canadian province and territory has had local tokens issued by some of its municipalities, with the exception of remote and sparsely-populated Nunavut (which was only created in 1999, after the fad had mostly subsided).

Demand and Outlook

The collectors' market for local tokens is quite convoluted - certain issues are exceptionally rare (with mintages in the double or even single digits) and command prices upwards of C$100, but because these tokens are an extremely specialized field there is not a lot of co-ordination between like-minded collectors and many rarities are often simply ignored. Today most local tokens are available in large quantities for less than C$1 each, which make them an excellent thing to collect for anyone interested in Canadian geography or history. Because almost all local tokens are one-year types, these tokens are also appealing to anybody who doesn't care about varieties or years but simply wants as many types as possible. Another thing that makes these tokens appealing is that unlike many other privately issued tokens and medallions, local tokens are usually quite competently designed.


Although a catalog exists that calls these tokens "municipal trade tokens", some were issued for a geographic region or locale rather than a single municipality (such as the "Northern Ontario Dollar", the "Southern Alberta Dollar", the "Manitoulin Island Dollar", etc.), so "local trade tokens", rather than "municipal", is more accurate.

These tokens are often casually called "trade dollars". They should not be confused with the sought-after silver "trade dollars" from the United States, nor the old and valuable "so-called dollar" tokens also once used in the United States.

Validity and Use

The idea with these tokens was that they would be (usually) worth C$1 in a certain town or location until a certain date. (Exceptions exist, though - many earlier tokens are worth less than C$1, many later tokens are worth more than C$1, and some tokens have no date on them.) They could be redeemed for their face value at local businesses and the local town hall or chamber of commerce. However, most people would choose to keep the tokens, because at only $1 they were a cheap and interesting souvenir.
In the heyday of local token production, only about 20% of the tokens would be redeemed. The majority would be kept as souvenirs past the expiry date, leading to profits for the issuing municipality. In later years, fewer and fewer trade dollars would be redeemed, indicative of a general loss of interest on behalf of the public.

These tokens were most often struck very close to the size and specifications of the Canadian "nickel dollar" - a downsized version of the silver dollar that was produced from 1968 to 1986. These nickel dollars were minted in fairly large numbers, but were not often seen in circulation because people preferred to use the C$1 banknote in their place. Like the local trade tokens, nickel dollars were also seen as an interesting novelty when encountered in daily circulation, so they occupied the same "niche".
However, fearing the wrath of the Royal Canadian Mint, the leading private mints usually struck local tokens to be a little bit wider and thinner than their legal-tender equivalents so that the tokens would not be accepted by vending machines.

So as to not interfere with the design, the validity information on local tokens is usually quite small. You may have to look closely But if you can't find any, read the next paragraph...

Not to be confused with

A typical "municipal medallion"
with no face value or expiry date
Many cities, towns, and places also produce medallions or medals to commemorate certain dates or events, which have no professed value. Effectively, these medallions are like local trade tokens - they are usually struck on the same blanks by the same mints, they are the same size, they have similar designs, and most will never be spent as money. (Some towns even ask to have medallions and local tokens produced with the same design.) However, because they have no dollar value, they are not considered to be "local trade tokens" and are usually not as popular or well-documented.

Even more confusingly, some trade tokens have no validity information on them because of an error at the issuing mint. Usually, these "tokens" had to be declared legal tender by the mayor or reeve. These exceptions are few, but they exist.

Rise and Fall

The first local token that really meets the definition of "local" in the 1993 Standard Catalogue of Canadian Municipal Trade Tokens and Notes is a 1959-dated 25-cent issue from Cornwall, Ontario. The company that minted this token is unknown, but its issue opened the floodgates regardless. Tokens were issued in 1960 and onwards. Production really took off once Canadian coins stopped containing precious silver in 1968 - perhaps that made the public more receptive to the idea that anything could have a dollar value, no matter what it was made of. The year that saw the single highest issue of different tokens was 1984. After that, production of "normal" trade tokens entered a decline. Presumably, inflation had cut away at profits as the value of a C$1 token dropped lower and lower (and production costs rose higher and higher). Most issues from the 1990s and later have face values of C$2 or more - but the familiar number "$1" has a certain mental impact on people and these new expensive tokens were not as popular.

Production Begins at Pressed Metal Products

Although nobody knows who minted the first Canadian trade token, one company distinguished itself during the early years of the trade token fad. This company was Pressed Metal Products, in Vancouver, British Columbia. At the time, P.M.P. seemed to prefer working with brass metal, so most of these early tokens are large, thin, and made of brass. They also have a certain "wordy" look, as the designers at the time were presumably not used to engraving actual graphic designs and preferred to fill their tokens with words and legends instead. P.M.P. was active during 1967, Canada's Centennial year
. During 1967, many towns set aside some money for celebrations, monuments, and other mementos, so the company did a good business creating "centennial commemorative" tokens.

Because P.M.P. was based in Vancouver, it preferred to work with towns in nearby British Columbia and Western Canada. Its highest-profile tokens were issued for Calgary's "Calgary Stampede", Canada's largest annual festival, a ten-day
combination festival-parade-rodeo attracting more than a million visitors every year. P.M.P. struck more than 200,000 tokens for this event between 1963 and 1966. However, other private mints soon out-competed P.M.P. and the company (which originally struck badges, pins, and medals) returned to its original line of business. Today, P.M.P. manufactures police badges and Canada's highest orders of merit, but they appear to have left the local token business long ago.

The Sherritt Era

The Sherritt Mint, based in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, began operations in the late 1960s as a branch of the much larger Sherritt Corporation, one of the world's leading nickel mining and refining companies. Sherritt had previously been commissioned to produce nickel planchets for various mints,
so opening a mint of their own seemed like a logical next step. The Sherritt Mint went on to design and produce most of Canada's local tokens for the next two decades. Sherritt's tokens distinguished themselves because of their quality composition (almost all were made of nickel or nickel-bonded steel, which stay shiny and resist corrosion excellently) and competently rendered designs.
Even tiny towns were able to do business with Sherritt, and the field of municipal trade tokens exploded. Their mint-mark is a hexagon with a line through it.

Another Sherritt trademark was the production of extremely limited amounts of precious metal local tokens, struck in pure gold or pure silver.
Silver issues from a large city will usually have mintages of 1 or 2 hundred; silver issues from a small town will have mintages below 50. Gold issues are even rarer, with mintages like 5 or 6 being the norm. It seems likely that many of these have been melted down, which is a phenomenal loss to exonumia and numismatics as a whole. Collectors will pay more than melt value for these precious tokens, so don't be an idiot and scrap them.

Other Private Mints

A token struck by Canadian Art Dies Ltd.
Canada had and has many private mints, but none ever achieved the presence of Sherritt and most only served nearby communities. These include the Alberta Mint (based in Edmonton), the Lombardo Mint (based in Mississauga), and the Johnson Matthey Mint (based in Toronto), and Canadian Art Dies Ltd. (location unknown). These small private mints were never particularly stable, and when they closed down and sold off their coining presses, the new owners of the presses would often establish a new private mint of their own.

End of an Era

One of the few local
trade tokens issued in the last 20 years.
By the 1990s, inflation had made C$1 a small sum indeed, and it was no longer cost-effective for communities to buy tokens from a private mint and make a profit by selling them for C$1. Some communities had C$2 tokens issued, but the damage was done. Private mints began to shut down and very few local trade tokens are issued today. The latest local tokens are worth anywhere from C$3 to C$20, but few municipalities issue them and interest is low. The local trade token trend is, currently, just about dead.