OTTAWA - The Canadian penny took another step Monday on what could be a long road to extinction, with businesses given the ultimate short-term power of deciding whether they want to keep accepting them.
The Royal Canadian Mint officially ended its distribution of one-cent coins to Canada's financial institutions.
But businesses can still accept the copper pieces as long as they choose, says Shelly Glover, the parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
"Pennies will retain their value indefinitely so they can continue to be used as long as they are available, and with businesses that are willing to accept them," Glover said at a Shoppers Drug Mart store in Ottawa's south end.
Flaherty announced the demise of the penny nearly a year ago as a cost-saving measure as the Mint was spending more to make pennies than they were worth. The last penny made came out of the Mint's Winnipeg facility in May of last year.
Retailers who decide to no longer accept pennies as part of cash payments will have to round up or down consumer purchases to the nearest five cents.
"When pennies are not available, cash payments will need to adapt," said Glover.
As an example, if a cash purchase totals $1.61 or $1.62, a retailer who doesn't want to deal with pennies would charge a customer $1.60.
If the purchase adds up to $2.28 or $2.29, the customer would be charged $2.30.
The government calls it symmetrical rounding.
Essentially, any final cash amount that ends with a 1, 2, 6 or 7 would be rounded down to the nearest five- or 10-cent increment. Purchase totals ending in 3, 4, 8 and 9 would be rounded up.
Electronic purchases, such as those online or using debit or credit cards, will still be billed to the cent.
And businesses are being encouraged to stop using pennies, to make the transition work smoothly.
The Retail Council of Canada says it's ready, with its members given an extension of the time they needed to adapt to the change.
"We have worked collaboratively alongside departmental officials to help develop tools for our members to use during the phase-out," said Diane Brisebois, the council's president and CEO.
There's an online toolkit available that includes signs retailers can download and post in store. The government has also taken to social media websites to let consumers and businesses know how to deal with the phase-out.
As it begins to disappear from the pockets and tills of most Canadians, the humble penny is still in demand in some artistic circles where it retains significant value.
Renee Gruszecki, a Halifax-based academic and archivist, has spent the past year making a living through a jewelry business devoted primarily to preserving the country's stray cents.
About 30,000 strategically sorted pennies fill Gruszecki's home and eventually find their way into the accessories produced at Coin Coin Designs and Co.
Gruszecki, a longtime collector of lucky pennies, believes her pieces will help preserve a symbol that is both an object of superstition and a Canadian icon.
"The maple leaf is synonymous with everything Canadian. We all identify with it," she said in a telephone interview. "Now it's just no longer going to be present among us, so I'm saddened by that."
The Bank of Canada's currency museum has already taken steps to preserve the penny's place in Canadian culture.
A mural consisting of nearly 16,000 one-cent pieces has been assembled at the museum to commemorate the coin's history, said assistant curator Raewyn Passmore.
The mosaic, which depicts a giant penny measuring about two square metres, is comprised of coins ranging from the lustrous to the tarnished.
Passmore said the design was meant to honour a coin which, while lacking buying power now, enjoyed many years of prominence since its first minting in 1858.
"It was probably the most common coin in circulation at one point and probably the most useful for ordinary people," she said. "We wanted to make a tribute to a sometimes overlooked coin."
The penny's current lack of value was the impetus for its demise, a point recently driven home to Canadians hoping to use their discarded coins to raise money for charity.
Jeff Golby, director of charity bank Chimp Fund, launched a publicity campaign shortly after the last penny was struck in an effort to persuade Canadians to discard their copper coinage into the coffers of cash-strapped organizations.
A massive penny party held in downtown Ottawa netted more than 120,000 cents, but it only served to starkly illustrated the coin's economic shortcomings.
Canadians who want to dispose of their spare change, Golby said, could find better uses for it than stopping by a charitable penny drive.
"On some level you go, 'OK, it can't hurt,' but when you factor in what it costs to charity ... in time, in rolling costs, it's not a cost-effective way for charities to really actually net decent money," he said.
The logistical challenges associated with the penny were among the reasons Flaherty cited for discontinuing the coin, adding that the economic toll worked out to about $11 million a year.
Internet search-engine giant Google marked the passing of the penny Monday with a dedicated doodle on its Canadian home page.
And while some may lament the one cent coin's end of days, it's been a bit of a boon for penny wise entrepreneurs like Gruszecki.
Sales of her jewelry spiked as the coin's demise drew nearer, she said, adding that Canadians' disregard for the coin as a form of legal tender has not diminished their sense of its value.
"I hope my jewelry will serve as a means for them to save a penny and keep the penny in circulation," she said.
"If you're wearing it on a ring or you're wearing it around your neck, you keep its visual presence certainly alive. If there can be an additional layer of meaning to it, all the better."
© Copyright 2013