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Personifying Canada

Royal Canadian Mint Product Manager Jamie Desrochers shares the story behind the creation of a bold new Canadian icon and delves into the history of allegory in describing the 2018 $20 Fine Silver Borealia coin.

Desrochers is the first to admit that using an old — in fact, ancient — form of symbolism to represent the modern, future-facing spirit of Canada might seem like an unusual choice.

“It was a risk,” he admits. “But sometimes art is like that. The most powerful images are often timeless.”

Powerful is a good word to describe Borealia, the female figure standing tall and proud on the Mint’s new 2018 $20 fine silver coin. She joins a long lineage of similar national icons: England’s Britannia, France’s Marianne and, of course, the U.S.’s world-famous Lady Liberty (herself the incarnation of an earlier figure, Columbia).

While their features, and what they represent, are different, all these emblematic women stem from a common tradition: allegory.

Putting a (new) Face to the Nation

Allegory is a time-honoured type of symbolism that says more than words can say — conveying meaning with extra force and feeling. It’s been used for centuries in literature, paintings, speeches and photography. Many countries use allegorical imagery on coins to express their national character or spirit.

“Allegory is a way of depicting a country’s raison d’etre, its modus operandi,” Desrochers says. “It’s also a means for a country to announce itself on the international stage.”

National allegories are often represented as women clad in togas, hearkening back to ancient Greece and the dawn of democracy. Borealia continues that tradition.

What some people may not realize is that Borealia isn’t Canada’s first allegorical icon. A figure called simply Miss Canada was created shortly after Confederation in the 1800s. She appeared on a three-coin Royal Canadian Mint set in 2013.

Desrochers says that as Canada’s 150th anniversary approached, “We wanted to breathe new life into Miss Canada.” Up to then, she had typically been demure, reserved. While Canadians are known for their modesty, the national celebration called for showcasing a different side of the Canadian character, its strength and pride.

The question was, what would that look like?

“This is Canada”

Various artists were invited to reimagine Miss Canada for 2017 as part of a nationwide competition. Among them was Rebecca Yanovskaya, a new addition to the Mint roster. Desrochers had been impressed with her work and reached out to see if she would be interested in submitting a design.

“A lot of Rebecca’s art is fantasy,” he explains. “I thought she would be a good candidate to create a national allegory that shouted, ‘This is Canada’.”

Apparently, he was on to something. Yanovskaya’s submission won, and her “Borealia” graced the 2017 proof dollar, selling out in just a few months. The name itself is one of the many originally suggested for Canada at the time of Confederation. It comes from Boreus, the ancient Greek god of the north wind.

Many-layered Meaning

Desrochers says the Mint brought Borealia back for the 2018 $20 Fine Silver coin to modernize her depiction even further and make her a perennial staple of the Mint’s lineup. Every element engraved into the gold-plated silver coin carries deep meaning, with the total image comprising a set of diverse, interconnected symbols.

The maple leaves and waves framing Borealia represent Canada’s land and sea. She stands firmly against a mountainous backdrop to depict our unwavering and soaring spirt of innovation. Her fur cape represents the weight of history and Canada’s pre-Confederation past; the feather she wears is in recognition of the land’s Indigenous Peoples. From the poppies in her hair to her armour and shield — emblazoned with the country’s coat of arms — she shows Canada’s readiness to protect itself while the dove of peace held high above her head expresses desire for peace and Canada’s role as a global peacekeeper.

“It’s not every day that a country is personified by allegory,” says Desrochers. “It’s even rarer that a small masterpiece is created.”

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