The Canadian five dollar bill is blue in colour and bears the image of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the country's first French-Canadian prime minister. Laurier's portrait is on the front of the bill, along with an image of the West Block of the Canadian parliament buildings. Canada's coat of arms is also depicted on the front. The back of the bill features a scene depicting children playing hockey and other winter sports on an outdoor rink.
The current five dollar bill was introduced in the early 21st century during a redesign of the nation's paper currency. The fiver was the second bill to be redesigned (the ten dollar bill was redesigned first because it bears the image of John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister). Before one can understand exactly what was different about the new bill, one must understand what the old bill looked like.
The "old" Canadian five dollar bills
The original Canadian five dollar bill was also blue, but a far more washed out blue than its successor. Laurier's portrait depicted him face-on; that is, facing the person holding the bill. The entire bill was blue, with the writing and images of Laurier and the parliament buildings etched in a darker shade than the background. The image of the parliament buildings included the Red Enseign, which had been Canada's flag when Laurier was prime minister. A friend of my dad's believed this to be a mistake and enthusiastically bought other people's five dollar bills from them because he thought they would be worth a great deal of money once the mistake was caught. Wrong.
This version of the Canadian five dollar bill is widely thought of as the "old" version. But it's not the oldest, oh no.
The first three series of Canadian paper currencies were far more regal-looking and were more characteristic of the historical time periods during which they were introduced. Most Canadian paper currency depicted the British monarch until 1954, and the five dollar bill was no exception. When the first five dollar bills were printed in 1935, they were a greenish colour and bore an image of Edward, Prince of Wales. Edward would famously ascend to the throne that year and later abdicate in order to marry his divorced love. He wasn't on currency for very long.
The back of the 1935 five dollar bill featured a scene depicting the harnessing of electricity.
In 1937, new currency depicting King George VI was printed. The portrait was in the bill's centre, and the bill took on a blue tint for the first time. The bill's back depicted the same scene -- the electricy one -- but it was also blue. These bills were in use until after George VI's death in 1952.
The next set of paper currency was released in 1954, two years after Elizabeth II became Queen. The five dollar bill remained blue in colour, but the portrait of the monarch was on the bill's right-hand side. A much lighter blue -- something more like an azure -- was also used for this bill. The back of the bill depicted a winter scene in the Yukon region.
Elizabeth II remained on the Canadian five dollar bill until 1969. She was originally slated to be depicted on the Bank of Canada's new releases, but the then-minister of finance opted to include former Canadian prime ministers on the new currency in order to help build national identity.
Up until this point, former prime ministers had only been depicted on larger, less commonly used bills such as the one hundred and one thousand dollar bills.
Laurier was chosen as the prime minister for the five dollar bill, and his portrait was placed where that of the Queen had been on the previous issue. There were also stylistic changes made to both the front and back of the bill. More artistic designs were used on the front, and the back now depicted a salmon seiner vessel off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia.
There were two reissues of this version of the bill during the 1970s. Apart from some minor changes -- the colour of the serial numbers, for instance -- the designs remained largely the same.
The next currency series was nicknamed the "birds of Canada" series because the back of each bill depicted birds commonly found in the country. Laurier's portrait remained on the paper's right side, but for the first time the Canadian parliament buildings were also depicted on the bill. The building was just to the right of Laurier's head, with the Red Ensign flying atop the Peace Tower.
The back of the bill, in keeping with the "birds of Canada" theme, featured the belted kingfisher. The bill was still blue.
The "birds of Canada" currency was the first to feature security features intended to thwart counterfeiters. Unfortuntately, counterfeitting was still a substantial problem in the earlier party of the 21st century and a new series was commissioned.
The "new" Canadian five dollar bills
The "Canadian Journey" currency set was unveiled in 2001. The new five dollar bill was released in 2002, still depicting Laurier and being blue. Unlike its predecessors, the new fiver also incorporated elements of gold colouring and took a drastic turn in terms of the portraits. Unlike all other previous Canadian currency in which the person depicted was shown face-on, the Queen and prime ministers were shown at an angle.
Laurier's portrait was moved to the left-hand side of the bill. The parliament buildings were still depicted just to the right of his face, though this bill focused on parliament's West Block as opposed to the entire parliament.
The bill also included more advanced features, such as the use of Braille and high-tech security initiatives. Certain elements designed to prevent counterfeitting are only visible using ultraviolet light.
An upgraded five dollar note, with more security features like those used on the higher denominations of the "Canadian Journey" series, was entered into circulation in 2006.
The back of the bill depicts, as mentioned, an image of Canadian children playing winter sports. It also includes a quotation from Roch Carrier's "The Hockey Sweater" that puts the importance of winter sports such as hockey to the Canadian identity into context.
The fact that the back of the Canadian five dollar bill features hockey has amused tourists, particularly those from the U.S. Conan O'Brien devoted an entire segment to it while filming a troika of shows in Toronto.
The Canadian government has been publicly musing about a five dollar coin for years, and put the question to the public (informally) in 2005. The Bank of Canada ditched the one and two dollar bills in favour of coins during the 1990s, and there has been much speculation that the five dollar bill will be next to go.
The reaction to the proposal was not favourable, even though the government had proposed using the money saved by using coins instead of paper currency to fund the Canadian Olympic team. It looks as though, for the moment, Laurier is safely tucked inside wallets and cash registers across the country.