In Canada, money talks -- both in English and in French.
A redesigned series of multicolored Canadian bills issued by the Bank of Canada this year has been coded so that the blind, using a newly developed electronic device, can distinguish among different denominations.
By adjusting a switch on the portable photo decoder, a device as long and wide as a bill and thick as a deck of cards, the user can hear the bill call out its denomination in either of Canada's two official languages.
The innovation is one of several changes in Canadian currency being introduced this year. They come at a time when some Canadians have been alarmed by the nosedive in the value of their currency in relation to the U.S. dollar.
The Canadian $1 bill, incidentally, is being scrapped in favor of an 11-sided, gold-colored coin. Worth more than the U.S. dollar at times in the past, the Canadian dollar was kept from falling below 70 U.S. cents in February only by the massive intervention of the Bank of Canada in currency markets.
Canadian exporting firms were quietly exultant about the competitive price advantage afforded by a lower Canadian dollar in the United States. The decline also holds the prospect for exporters of recapturing markets lost in European countries when the Canadian dollar rose dramatically along with the U.S. dollar.
Canada's rank-and-file spenders seem resigned to taunts about the Monopoly-money appearance of Canadian bank notes -- which come in blue, red, purple, brown, rose and olive green -- when they flock to the United States for vacations by the millions each year. But they are upset by the decline in value.
A rueful joke making the rounds here goes, "Hey, have you seen the new U.S. fifty-cent piece?" The jokester then pulls out a frayed Canadian one-dollar bill.
The new coin dollar is made of nickel and plated with copper, slightly larger than a quarter and a bit heavier. Officials said two surveys taken over the past three years indicate Canadians, unlike their neighbors to the south who spurned the metallic Susan B. Anthony dollar, will accept the new coin. Nickel and copper miners in Canada, suffering from depressed world prices, are enthusiastic.
Other Canadian bank notes are still being printed on paper but with some changes that provide a couple of intriguing insights into the complex Canadian psyche.
In an indication of reluctance to break completely with a long colonial past, the Bank of Canada, in consultation with Finance Minister Michael Wilson, retained an engraved portrait of Queen Elizabeth II -- who is still regarded as queen of Canada and is the ceremonial head of state -- on $2 and $20 bills and had her drawn larger.
In the new likeness, the monarch has aged -- or as a Bank of Canada official prefers to describe it, been made "much more mature" -- since she first appeared on Canadian currency two decades ago.
Canadians complain endlessly that the American conception of their country places too much emphasis on Canada's vast wilds and ignores the country's cities and civilization. But in designing the backs of the new bills, the government dispensed with past scenes of Parliament, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the smelly industrial town of Sarnia in southern Ontario. They were replaced with birds, including a belted kingfisher on the $5 bill, an osprey on the $10 and a common loon sharing the $20 with Elizabeth.
Asked why Canada was making all these changes, Don Adolph, assistant chief for banking operations of the Bank of Canada, said the primary reason was to to guard against counterfeiting. He acknowledged, however, that there have been only an "insignificant" number of attempts by crooks to fake copies of Canadian bank notes.
Another reason for the redesign, he said, was to make the currency distinguishable by denomination for the blind. Since the late 1970s, government and university researchers have been at work to invent a device.
After spending about (U.S.) $150,000, they produced a seven-ounce sounding board that focuses a light on one side of the newly coded bill. The device, which operates on nine-volt batteries, measures the strength of light reaching a photo decoder, and triggers the proper tape.
Adolph said the researchers believe the device is still too bulky and are at trying to reduce its size and weight. A representative of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in Toronto, which has helped test the instrument, said his members would like a device about the size of a pack of cigarettes.
Geoffrey Eden, the representative, said the blind had asked for such an innovation because they, like sighted persons, dislike having to open their wallets to others in order to pay bills. The need for such an instrument was also underscored a few years back, he said, when his group had to replace the blind cashiers working at lunch counters they operate in Canada. They were being shortchanged.