Since the Bank of Canada first started releasing its own banknotes in 1935, there have been seven series of Canada paper money, each with its own designs and overall theme. The most recent series, known as the Frontier series, has been in circulation since 2011.
Each of the five denominations of this series bears a different portrait of a significant figure in Canadian history. Some of the portraits may be more readily recognizable than others, but each has contributed something important to the country and is therefore worth learning more about.
Sir John A. Macdonald
John A. Macdonald was the first Prime Minister of Canada, serving from 1867 to 1873 and again from 1878 to 1891. He is also regarded as one of the Fathers of Confederation. One of the major national projects of his government was the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. A transcontinental railroad across Canada contributed significantly to western colonization. However, Macdonald’s legacy with respect to Indigenous peoples has been cause for controversy and concern.
Sir John Macdonald’s portrait has figured on Canadian $10 bills over several different series of banknotes, starting in 1971. In 2018, another style of $10 bill featuring civil rights activist Viola Desmond was released in response to a petition asking for significant, non-royal, Canadian women to have representation on the country’s banknotes. In 1946, Desmond seated herself on the main floor of a Nova Scotia theatre in defiance of racist rules and was jailed and prosecuted as a result.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier
Though Canada is a bilingual country, it didn’t have a francophone prime minister until 1896. That man was Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose portrait graces the $5 Canadian bill. A leader of the Liberal Party, Laurier served in Parliament for 45 consecutive years. While he was in office, the Yukon Territory and the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan became part of Canada. He supported a second transcontinental railway as a means of encouraging expansion and national development. He also promoted immigration to Canada from the United States and Europe. He is remembered for his passionate advocacy of national unity in Canada and his talent for constructive compromise.
Sir Robert Borden
At the time, World War I was the largest and deadliest conflict the world had ever seen. Canada made an enormous contribution to the allied forces. Over 650,000 Canadians, both men and women, served during the conflict, which is particularly impressive since the population of the entire country at the time was only eight million. Part of the reason for Canada’s robust and enthusiastic participation was the galvanizing leadership of the Prime Minister at the time, Sir Robert Borden, who guided the country through the difficult period and whose portrait graces the $100 bill.
William Lyon MacKenzie King
Serving through most of the 1920s through the 1940s, King holds the record as the Canadian Prime Minister who served the longest. During the latter part of his administration, in 1947, the Canadian Citizenship Act was introduced that would make its people into Canadian citizens, whereas before they were considered subjects of the British crown. Other transformative events that occurred while King was Prime Minister were World War II and independence from the United Kingdom. King’s portrait graces the $50 bill.
Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait on the $20 bill may be the most recognizable of all the notes in the Frontier series. After all, it also graces all the coins issued by the Royal Canadian Mint. Acceding to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1952, Queen Elizabeth is the longest-reigning monarch in the history of Canada and the U.K. A special commemorative note was issued in 2015 on the exact day that her reign exceeded that of the previous longest-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother.
Canada Paper Money Through the Ages
While the Bank of Canada has only been releasing banknotes since 1935, paper money has been used in Canada for much longer. Find paper money dating back to 1870, organized by denomination, for sale to collectors at Colonial Acres Coins.