Lest We Forget: Divergent perspectives on the 2014 commemorative Silver Dollar

2014 Canadian fine Silver Dollar - Reverse

2014 Canadian fine Silver Dollar – Reverse (click to enlarge)

The 2014 Canadian fine Silver Dollar commemorates the beginning of the First World War, and the mobilization of the Canadian military to respond to the first truly global conflict. The reverse depicts a poignant and often-repeated farewell between a departing Canadian soldier and (presumably) his spouse, as he prepares to board a train waiting to take him and other troops to ships bound for Europe. As with the 2013 issue, the current Silver Dollar is being offered in four distinct finishes: the standard Proof and Brilliant Uncirculated strikes, together with the gold-enhanced version available only in the fine Silver Proof Set. Lastly, the “Silver Dollar Specimen Set” features a fourth striking with a unique matte-Proof finish (note: the 2013 striking in this last finish has escaped the radar of many collectors, and is destined to be a “sleeper” coin).

I found the coin to be attractive and appropriate, not giving it much thought as we incorporated the core 2014 products into our inventory, together with the many additional specialty products released in the first quarter of the year. Thus, I was somewhat taken aback when a good customer stopped into our store in late March, and energetically protested the theme of the Silver Dollar. In his view, it served only to “glorify war”, and had no place as a theme on Canada’s flagship numismatic commemorative. I was surprised at his conviction, and found myself playing devil’s advocate before – as I increasingly try to do these days – later pausing to contemplate the possible legitimacy of his position.

I can certainly see his point on the sensitive nature of commemorating any past armed conflict. The Roman Silver Denarii issues with their unabashed depiction of slaves/enemy captives under the boots of imperial soldiers certainly served as effective propaganda tools through their circulation in everyday commerce, however they didn’t come close to registering on the sensitivity scale. And in my couple decades of coin-dealing, we’ve all encountered more than enough modern “commemorative” issue that are far more about promoting the bravado of war as a commercially-appealing product, rather than a thoughtful reflection on the multi-tiered relationships altered and created in a major armed conflict (more on this shortly).

In looking over Canada’s comparatively brief numismatic history, there can be little debate that our circulating coinage has been characteristically modest when it comes to marking our involvement in war. Indeed, in our first 140+ years of decimal coinage, only a single circulating coin – the “Victory” nickels of 1943/44 – reflected a theme of war, in this case a necessary patriotic message to a population deep in the throes of overseas conflict. Indeed, I have to confess that I fully expected the recent notable bicentennial of the War of 1812 to pass quietly and unmarked (numismatically), given the particular political nature of the specific parties involved and our current relatively sensitive relationship. How wrong could I have been! With almost a dozen circulating commemoratives alone for the War and its key Canadian players, we celebrated the bicentennial in an unprecedented fashion (and my hat is off to our government on this).

It is critical to point out, however, that even on this occasion we lauded – in true Canadian fashion – not the “glory” or military superiority of our role in the War, but once again the relationships that were altered and/or forged in the common defence of Canadian sovereignty. For here we had three distinct tribes, if you will, joining together for a greater common cause than their own individual self-interest. A truly remarkable feat, when one reflects that throughout history these three groups – the French, English and First Nations – have probably fought as many distinct wars among each other as any traditional foes we know of! True, the French and English (as well as First Nations) would yet again hack away at each other in the decades following the War of 1812, however the evolution of not only their inter-relationships but also the relationship between the United States and what would eventually become Canada had critical seeds in the War of 1812.

My point (not intending to present my own lecture on the War of 1812 here), is that there is always a valid reason to commemorate a major, societal-altering historical conflict, and Canada’s War of 1812 commemorative program got it right. Celebrating the people involved and the current-day strong relationship of the former foes is the perfect fusion of pride and tact. Those who follow my limited twitter feed may recall the afternoon a few months back where I ended up driving in the center of Prime Minister Harper’s motorcade (quite uninvited, I should stress). His entourage had just left a commemoration ceremony at Chrysler’s Farm, on the Canada-U.S. border, where he echoed in his speech these same themes of victory through cooperation and unity, and also the transformed relationship that eventually evolved out of the 1812 conflict with our now largest trading partner.

Victory in military conflict is nothing shameful to commemorate, as centuries of often superb European medallic history will attest. And yes, Canada has now joined the rest of the modern minting world in producing a significant number of war-themed non-circulating commemorative coins. These cover the spectrum, marking not only the people involved in our past conflicts, but also the vehicles and aircraft that allowed our men and women to accomplish what they did. Almost without exception I respect each of these various issues, though I do catch myself lamenting from time-to-time the overall number of issues we are expected to keep up with. Courage and respect, however, are even more critical themes to acknowledge in coining than simply victory over a threatening enemy. We are never more clearly reminded of this than when reflecting on Canada’s poignant Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel commemoratives. Far from celebrating the glory of battle or cheer of victory, these coins more properly mark the devastation of loss of life and (yet again) the painful evolution of relationships; in these cases the relationship of an independent Dominion of Newfoundland, who sacrificed such a proportionally profound number of their men to the war, with the larger Canada, and the relationship of a maturing and increasingly autonomous Canada within the British Empire.

2014 WWI Dollar Gold enhanced both sides

Both sides of the coin

Thus, in a very round-about yet deliberate way, I return to the subject of our 2014 commemorative Silver Dollar. With the greatest of respect to critics and pacifists among us, this coin is simply not a gratuitous glorification of World War I. Rather, it is, as the coin’s very issue title aptly suggests, an entirely appropriate commemoration of the centennial of the great war-time mobilization that would permanently transform both the relationship of Canada with respect to the many other nations of the world, as well as the many complex relationships within the Canadian population itself.

Whether it be the single couple depicted on the coin itself, whose respective roles would quickly undergo significant transformation (were the soldier fortunate enough to return home from the war, he would do so to a wife who could now vote!), or the general population who would soon experience mandated limitations on what key commodities they could purchase and/or consume: every man, woman and child in Canada would come to be affected by the profound transformation from peace-time to war-time economy, and the evolutions of relationships within this (and the post-war) society are without question one of the key watershed periods in Canadian history, albeit ushered in at the terrible cost of so much Canadian blood.

sean-isaacs-on-holiday“Let us Forget”, and boycott this WWI commemorative coin as inappropriate and counter-pacifist? Not a chance, as to do so would be both a denial of our own history and, quite frankly, a disservice to collectors in preventing an opportunity to own and enjoy this attractive and poignant numismatic issue.

Sean Isaacs

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