Taissumani, April 7
The Inuit two-dollar bill—a bittersweet memory
In 1975, the Canadian government issued a two-dollar bill which showed a scene of six men preparing their kayaks for a hunt near Pond Inlet on northern Baffin Island.
The Inuit were the family and friends of Joseph Idlout, a well-known hunter.
The scene, as shown on the bill, is based on a photograph taken by Doug Wilkinson, a young documentary photographer who spent a year living with Idlout’s family at their camp, Aulatsiivik, in the 1950s. The camp, five families totalling 31 people, was led by the 38-year-old hunter, reputed to be the best in the district.
The photograph was taken at Nuvuruluk, near Aulatsiivik. The Inuit called the photographer “Qimmiq,” the Inuktitut word for “dog,” which is what they heard when he introduced himself as “Doug.”
The six men in the scene are, from left to right: Gideon Qitsualik, crouched and working on a kayak; Lazarus Paniluk, holding a harpoon; Solomon Kalluk, bent over a kayak; Paul Idlout, inflating an avataq (float); Joseph Idlout, with his back to the camera; and young Elijah Erkloo, holding a paddle.
The scene, as with most photographs chosen for depiction on currency, was modified somewhat by the engraver, C. Gordon Yorke.
He had to make it fit the shape of the bill; to do so, he changed some of the details of the scene and the positioning of the people. Still, it is a realistic copy of the original photograph.
The bill is dated 1974 on the front (or the obverse, as numismatists say), but it was first printed by the British American Bank Note Company and circulated in August of the following year. The Bank of Canada replaced it in 1986 with a two-dollar bill that bore the image of a robin, but the Inuit two-dollar bill continued to circulate as legal tender.
In 1996, when the government announced that all two-dollar bills would be withdrawn from circulation and replace with the two-dollar coin, I owned the Arctic Ventures store in Iqaluit.
The store manager, John Bens, and I decided that we should get a number of bills, in mint condition, save them for a few years, then write up a little story about who the people in the picture are and where the picture was taken. We would put each bill and the story together in an attractive frame and sell them in Arctic Ventures as high-quality souvenirs.
So we ordered 1,000 of the two-dollar bills from the Royal Bank, for which, of course, we paid $2,000.
We knew it was too early to put our plan to work. We’d have to wait a while until the bills had actually stopped circulating, expecting there would then be a demand for them as souvenirs.
We also knew if we put the bills in the safe at Arctic Ventures, that some day, some new well-meaning office manager would spot them, and re-deposit them to the bank, and our plan would come to naught.
So John and I decided to hide them. And forget about them for a few years. And so we did.
Some years later, we decided it was time to activate our plan. And guess what? We couldn’t find them. We had hidden them so well and for so long that we never found them!
In 2012, when I sold Arctic Ventures, I had to go through everything in the store and warehouses, to decide what was mine and what would go to the new owner.
I thought that we would surely find them then. But we never did. They had disappeared.
Had they been inadvertently thrown out in a cleanup of trash? Had someone discovered them and walked off with them? We’ll never know.
When most northerners see an old two-dollar bill, perhaps they have a feeling of nostalgia. I do too, but I still wonder what happened to my 1,000 two-dollar bills.
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik, the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.