Robert-Ralph Carmichael, artist behind loonie coin, dies

Robert-Ralph Carmichael, the artist who designed Canada's one-dollar loonie coin, has died at the age of 78.

More than 1 billion of the $1 coins he designed are in circulation

More than a billion of Robert-Ralph Carmichael's loonie coins have been minted since 1987. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Not many artists can say that their artwork has been reproduced more than a billion times.

But Robert-Ralph Carmichael was able to, thanks to his design for Canada's new one-dollar coin back in 1987 — a coin that came to be popularly known as the loonie because of Carmichael's iconic image of a solitary loon on the coin's reverse.

Carmichael died on Saturday in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., at the age of 78.

"Mr. Carmichael's loonie design has stood the test of time due to its simplicity in depicting an icon of Canadian wildlife," said a statement issued by the Royal Canadian Mint on Monday.

"The introduction of the one-dollar coin in 1987 was the most significant change to Canada's coinage system in over 50 years. We thank him for his remarkable contribution in creating what has become a true Canadian symbol."

Figures from the mint show that well over a billion loonie coins have been produced since 1987. Carmichael's initials appear near the bird's beak.

Designed many coins

While the loonie was Carmichael's best known numismatic work, he designed more than a dozen other coins for the mint, including several gold and commemorative coins.

A story from 2012 said the federal government authorized the loonie design for the country's new one-dollar coin only after the original master dies were lost in transit to the Winnipeg mint from Ottawa in November 1986. That design depicted a voyageur in a canoe, similar to what was on the previous silver-coloured dollar coin.

In a 2012 interview with the Sault Star, Carmichael said his design for the loonie was the first one the mint accepted after 10 years of submitting proposals. 

"The loon dollar was the first, and I suppose the greatest," he told the newspaper.

"You couldn't ask for a better introduction to having your work produced as a coin than that one. Everything followed that."

A monument to Carmichael's most famous work — a giant version of his loonie — was erected in his longtime home of Echo Bay, Ont., in 1992.
Robert-Ralph Carmichael showed his drawings and paintings at dozens of group and solo exhibitions across Canada. (Nael Shiab/Radio-Canada)

Carmichael was a successful artist who showed his drawings and paintings in dozens of group and solo exhibitions across Canada. His work is featured in the permanent collections of many art galleries and in many private collections.

"The major theme in my work is the human condition — our relationship to the environment — our relationship to each other," he said in his artist's statement for the Centre for Canadian Contemporary Art. 

Carmichael is survived by his wife, Gwen Keatley.