August 23, 2005

Got Any Spare Change?

This story is, well, just priceless.

Canada, as many of you know, has a $1 coin and a $2 coin, the paper versions of these denominations having been phased out years ago. Both changes met with widespread resistance and denial, but eventually Canadians came to embrace the coins with some affection ("see, we really are different from Americans.") The folks at the Royal Canadian Mint have been hoping to convert Canada's $5 bills to coins for at least ten years now, but haven't found a way to lower public resistance. Apparently some marketing geniuses at the Mint had a brainstorm last winter — let's tell people that we'll give the money we save — maybe a few tens of millions each year — to Canada's Olympic athletes! That's got to be a winner, right?

The Finance Department of the federal government, always up for some found cash, decided to test the political waters frist. They hired Environics Research to conduct some focus groups last May. The results were unsurprising and yet profound:

Participants overwhelmingly rejected the very idea of a $5 coin and dismissed the Olympic-funding idea as ridiculous. "The proposal to direct these savings to the athletes was greeted with notable hostility," Environics said in a June 2005 report, obtained by The Canadian Press.

The CP article lifts the following quotes directly from the Environics report:

  • "Absolutely ridiculous idea."
  • "Give me a break! There are so many other burning issues where the money could be spent."
  • "I'm embarrassed to be Canadian sometimes."
  • "Do you freaking believe this?"

Notable hostility indeed! Even as an avid supporter of Canadian amateur sport, I had to laugh at just how badly the kids at the Mint misjudged public opinion on this one. They sure don't know much about Canadian culture:

And although people said government should support athletes, most thought any savings from a paper-to-coin conversion should go to health care, helping the homeless and social programs.

I don't think that you can get much more Canadian than that, and I mean that in both a good and a bad way. I can't argue with the needs expressed above, and it makes me feel strangely proud that the focus groups weren't calling for a $1-per-person tax cut. I could argue that throwing a few tens or even a few hundred million at health care or "social programs" is not going to make a noticeable difference to anybody's quality of life, and that it would be significant for Canada's Olympic athletes. But I guess that's not really the point. When push comes to shove, Canadians just don't believe that elite sport is all that important. And maybe that's a good thing, in the big picture; I can't even convince myself that doing better at the Olympics is more important than helping the homeless. But is it any wonder, with this attitude, that Canada struggles for every Olympic success?

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