Review of the Montreal Fire Brigade on Dominion Day, 1870
Scene at the Grove: Pic-nic of the Workingmen's Association on Dominion Day, 1871
Dominion Day. St. Patrick's Society's Pic-nic on the grounds of J. Howley, Esq., Montreal, 1871
Celebration of Dominion Day in Toronto, 1875
Dominion Day celebrations, 1880
Britannia pageant, Dominion Day parade, Calgary, Alberta, circa 1900-1903
July 1st celebration, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, 1906
Harness racing on Dominion Day, Outlook, Saskatchewan, 1909
Dominion Day, Parliament Square, Ottawa, Ontario, circa 1910
Dominion Day celebrations at the Holms brothers' cabin at Fort Assiniboine, Alberta, 1911
Baseball team, winners of the July 1st game, Foremost, Alberta, 1914
What does Canada Day mean to you? If you're like many other Canadians, chances are it means a holiday spent outdoors, in the company of others. Perhaps you pack a picnic lunch or take part in a sporting event. In many places, the day ends with a fireworks display.
Things haven't changed much from that first Canada Day, known then as Dominion Day, celebrated on July 1st, 1867. We know from records of the event, that "the day dawned fair and warm, with a clear, cobalt-blue sky, and a little breeze that took the hottest edge off the bright sun." (1)
Canadians in Saint John, New Brunswick were roused from their sleep by a 21-gun salute at 4:00 in the morning. The people of Kingston, Ontario received their wake-up call at 6:00 a.m., when guns were fired from Fort Henry. Citizens of Dartmouth and Halifax, Nova Scotia were allowed to sleep until 8:00 when the Volunteer Artillery of Halifax fired their guns and were answered by the naval brigade on the Dartmouth side of the harbour. In Quebec, churchgoers attended a High Mass at 8:00 a.m. in the cathedral at Trois-Rivières.
By mid-morning, Victoria Square and Place d'Armes in Montréal were filling up with people waiting to hear the Royal Proclamation. They were in good company. People all over the country were also waiting -- in market squares, parks and parade grounds. They had come to hear the official words read:
"...dated at Windsor Castle on the 22nd day of May, in the year of Our Lord 1867, Her Most Gracious Majesty did ordain, declare, and command, that on and after the 1st day of July, 1867, the Provinces of Canada [Ontario and Quebec], Nova Scotia and New Brunswick should form and be one Dominion under the name of Canada;..." (2)
Once the Proclamation had been read, informal celebrations such as parades, sports, games and picnics began. At Trois-Rivières, a cricket match was in full swing. Cricket was played in Kingston too (while on-lookers listened to the Royal Canadian Rifles band, who played all afternoon at the cricket grounds.)
There were sailing and sculling races at Barrie, Ontario along with the hilarious "greasy pole" event, in which contestants were encouraged to walk along a slippery 30-foot pole to snatch a flag at the end -- without slipping off into the waters of Kempenfelt Bay!
Spectators in Dunville, in the Niagara peninsula, watched harness racing on a brand-new race course while being serenaded by the Dunville and Wellandport brass bands.
There were simple celebrations as well. In many small villages and towns, there were no bands, racetracks or regattas, but people came together to celebrate nonetheless. Farming families gathered at fairgrounds and picnic spots, sometimes in a field or meadow.
As nightfall came, elaborate preparations were underway in the cities. In Queen's Park, Toronto, trees were hung with hundreds of Chinese paper lanterns, casting a festive glow. People eagerly awaited a fireworks display.
Over the years, such celebrations not only continued, but flourished. In 1876, at Burrard Inlet, British Columbia, winners of events such as sailing and canoe races, high jump and long jump and many different running races competed for prize money. The person who tossed the caber farthest received $5.00, as did the winner of the potato race. The fastest boy on stilts went home $2.50 richer. Those who didn't mind getting wet walked the bowsprit for a whopping $15.00, rode the log for $7.50 and entered the tub race for a chance to win $5.00. (3)
The 1878 Grand Rowing Regatta in Guelph, Ontario had an interesting selection of activities. A blindfolded wheelbarrow race, offering a $2.00 prize, must have been a sight to see. There was a parade through the town's main streets to the Exhibition Grounds, that featured prizes for the "best-dressed", "worst-dressed", "most ridiculously dressed" and the "best group in a carriage". There was a baseball match between the renowned "Stars" of Syracuse, New York and Guelph's own "Maple Leafs". The day was capped with an evening Torchlight Procession through the town's streets, followed by a "Magnificent display of Fire-works on the Square", culminating in a "Monster Bonfire". (4)
Bayfield, Ontario's 1894 Dominion Day Tournament had something for everyone. Along with the sack race, three-legged race and wheelbarrow race, there were donkey races, pony races, dog races in harness, horse running and horse trotting, bicycle races and an obstacle race. If you were male and 55 years of age or older, you could enter the "Old Men's Race" and win $1.25. The $6.00 given for a first-place win in the Sawing Match and the $10.00 offered for the one-mile Horse Trotting race seems to indicate these were the events deemed most popular. (5)
The 1899 Dominion Day celebrations in Saint John, New Brunswick had a truly ambitious program of events. They included both the customary rowing and canoeing races, as well as the not-so-usual. The Water Derby event called for contestants to paddle 100 yards on barrels. The Novelty Race allowed participants to use anything except a boat or canoe to cover the mandatory 100 yards. There were Tilting Tournaments in canoes, the Tug of War (paddling in punts), and a 100-yard Crab Race, in which each contestant was required to kneel in the bow of a canoe and paddle forward.
Another undoubtedly popular event at the Saint John Regatta that afternoon in 1899, was a double-scull race in which the rowers were dressed as Beefeaters, Armoured Knights and Highlanders -- costumes pointing to the town's British roots. The evening brought a round of bicycle and field sports, illuminations and fireworks. (6)
Souvenir programs were printed up ahead of time and the various sporting events were listed along with the prize money being offered for each event. A space was often provided for the program owner to record the name of the lucky winners.
Another type of Dominion Day souvenir was a booklet of black-and-white photographs, like the one issued in St. Catharines, Ontario in 1915, "in aid of War Relief and Charity". The cost of a single copy was 15 cents. From the photographs found in this particular booklet, it is evident that community groups played a vital role in Canada Day celebrations. Firemen, girl guides, the Humane Society, The Children's Shelter, the Orphans' Home, the Patriotic League, Martin Electric Co. and Walker's East End Drug Store participated in the parade that contained cars and horse-pulled wagons, heavily decorated with flowers. (7)
The celebrations in Langley Prairie, British Columbia in 1917 were much more child-focused. There was a morning parade of school floats and a baseball game. By 1:30 parents were congregating to cheer on their children in the sporting events. A motion picture was offered from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., followed by a vaudeville show featuring songs, musical pieces and a comedy farce in the evening. A "Grand Ball" for the adults, starting at 10:00 p.m. crowned the day's events. (8)
Whether young or old, now or then, people have come together to celebrate our country's anniversary. It may be a simple picnic in a quiet spot, or a more organized series of events, topped off with a spectacular fireworks display. Whatever the choice, Canadians continue the tradition set that first Canada Day -- celebrating our country's anniversary to the fullest.