Gaspé's ‘demi’ just one of Canada’s (legal) alternate currency systems

Daily Brew

Residents in Quebec's Gaspé region say it's impossible to tell how many people are using the demi, but say it's creating a 'parallel' local economy. ( Isabelle Larose/Radio-Canada)

Gaspé, Que. doesn’t come up in conversation too often. Despite being the cradle of French culture in Canada, the point where Jacques Cartier took possession of New France in 1543, the seaside town of around 15,000 has become the sort of place known for heavy snowfalls, year-round winds and tourists who come to snap photos next to the gargantuan windmill blades manufactured nearby.

Recently, it added “home to Canada’s newest currency” – the demi – to its quirks.

The local currency, French for “half”, is the byproduct of a discussion between friends and a visitor over pints at the local microwbrewery Le Naufrageur, explains Martin Zibeau, one of the first adopters, to Macleans.

But it’s not printed with local symbols nor registered with a local currency exchange. Instead Gaspé demi adopters have taken the simple route: cut your Canadian bills in half. That’s right. All you have to do is physically cut your twenty, ten or five dollar bill in half.

“Most people, their first reaction is: ‘What is this?’ and they’re confused,” Zibeau told Macleans. “I don’t think anyone has said: ‘No problem. Give me a pair of scissors.’”

At first pass it sounds completely bananas, but it’s actually kind of genius.

Demis, as the name suggests, are worth half whatever the bill is. They’re not accepted everywhere, which means you’re not likely to see a Wal-Mart treating the scissor-cut bills as real money. But some local businesses will, and that’s the rub, it’s a way of truly keeping money in the local economy.

And despite what your intuition tells you, it’s not illegal.

“There is nothing in the law that makes alternative currencies, such as community currencies or cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, illegal,” Louise Egan, senior consultant of media relations at the Bank of Canada told Yahoo Canada. “These alternative currencies are, however, not legal tender in Canada – only the Canadian dollar has legal tender status.”

While marking up, or cutting, bank notes isn’t a criminal offence, that doesn’t mean it won’t backfire.

“Writing on a bank note or mutilating it may interfere with the security features and reduces its lifespan (while) markings on a note or mutilating it may also prevent it from being accepted in a transaction,” says Egan. “Furthermore, the Bank of Canada feels that writing and markings on bank notes, or mutilating them is inappropriate as they are a symbol of our country and a source of national pride.”

Which is probably why most local currency adoptees opt to create their own version of paper money — and several have. Canada has a bit of a legacy when it comes to parallel currencies.

‘Demi’ not the first alternative currency

Between 1998 and 2012, the Toronto Dollar system proliferated among the Gerrard Square and St. Lawrence Market communities. The money could be purchased at a one-to-one rate and was accepted at parity with the Canadian dollar by 250 businesses. Merchants in turn could exchange Toronto Dollars at 90 cents to the dollar with the other ten cents going towards local homeless or low-income-focused organizations.

Unfortunately the currency was eventually taken out of rotation as a result of ebbing enthusiasm and dwindling volunteers to run the charity side of things.

Calgary Dollars, on the other hand, have proven to have a bit more staying power. Launched in 1996 by community economic development-focused Arusha Group, the complementary currency is accepted at 1,000 local businesses including Calgary Transit, Sunnyside Market and Mountain Equipment Coop.

According to Imagine Calgary, there is an estimated $80,000 Calgary Dollars in circulation. 

But the propagation of local currencies has raised concerns about counterfeiting. Given that local chambers of commerce or economic development groups are usually tasked with disseminating and tracking the dollars, policing powers are slim.

It was an issue raised by merchants surrounding Salt Spring Dollars, a local currency active on Salt Spring Island, B.C.

“The primary thing is that anyone caught passing one of these counterfeit dollars faces a forgery charge and they can get a 14-year sentence in Canada,” Eric Booth, a spokesperson for the Salt Spring Island Monetary Foundation, told the local news. “There is also a copyright violation. This is not a minor offence.”

To combat, the parallel currency includes security features, a watered down version of the Royal Canadian Mint’s approach to security.

“If you tilt the bill, the (gold) heart should disappear. When they are photocopied, they lose the metallic look and the colour is different, it goes flat rather than glitters,” Booth said. “You should also quickly look at the serial numbers.”

Of course there are limits to local currencies cautions Egan.

“There are specifically no rules for printing a localized currency,” she says. “However, if the currency is made to look like the Canadian dollar in an attempt to confuse people or be passed off as a Canadian dollar, then it is considered to be counterfeiting and is, of course, illegal.”

Luckily for Gaspe’s demis, counterfeiting a Canadian dollar then cutting it in half seems like a lot of work for little pay-off.