Parades of Patriotism

On July 1st, 1867 the four British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick came together to form a brand new country. Canada has since grown to include 10 provinces and 3 territories each with their own varied history and culture, but the tradition of celebrating the anniversary of Canada’s birth has remained.

These annual celebrations, known as Dominion Day, were at first quite small but by 1900 most communities were coming together to celebrate Canada’s birthday. Join us in exploring how communities like Prince George marked this special occasion 100 years ago.

The Road to Confederation

 Throughout the 1850s, many attempts were made to merge the British colonies in North America into one unified country. Although the regions were divided by geography, economics, and cultures, many believed that despite these differences the colonies would be stronger together. In 1864 a conference was held in Charlottetown, PEI with the purpose of discussing a union between the maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. The proceedings were sidetracked when John A. MacDonald, George Brown, and George Etienne Cartier, politicians from Ontario and Quebec, attended without invitation to promote their own idea of a union between the maritime colonies and Upper and Lower Canada. It would take two more years of planning, debate, and negotiation before John A. MacDonald was able to bring a confederation proposal before the British Parliament in 1866. On July 1st, 1867 the Dominion of Canada was created by a document known as the British North America Act.

George Etienne Cartier, William McDougall, John A. MacDonald, Thomas D'Arcy McGee, and others at the Charlottetown Conference in 1864.

The road to Confederation was not an easy one. There was strong opposition from many fronts; the French Canadian population of Lower Canada opposed confederation because they feared the power a new House of Commons dominated by English Canadians would have. They feared the loss of cultural recognition and the forward progress that had been made towards equality between the English and French.  Even after serious political compromise, the motion barely passed in Lower Canada.

A political cartoon that captures the uncertainty felt by those in the Maritimes.

There was also strong opposition in the Maritime Provinces, where they were concerned that not only would they lose their cultural identity, but also that the union might damage their many trade connections with the United States. The idea of a union between the Maritime Provinces was more popular than the idea of a union with Upper and Lower Canada.  New Brunswick was so against the idea that they voted their pro-Confederation government out of power in 1865. In fact they only became part of Canada because in 1866 a group of Irish Americans known as the Fenians attacked New Brunswick and scared the population enough that they wanted the security a larger union would offer them. In Nova Scotia the government was hesitant but they didn’t want Confederation to become an election issue so they pushed for the vote to occur before the next election. In Prince Edward Island all parties opposed the union, which lead to the colony not becoming part of Confederation until 1873.

Upper Canada fully supported the union. They had the largest population and considerable political control, as well as the dominant social order. They had nothing to lose, and would greatly benefit by the economic expansion that confederation would bring. The resolution to join the Confederation passed by a large margin in Upper Canada, due mainly to their population’s British majority.

A map of Canada in 1867, after Confederation.

British Columbia Joins Confederation

Canada was only a few years old when it turned its eye west with the aim of including British Columbia in the new country. In 1866 the mainland and Vancouver Island colonies had merged to form the Colony of British Columbia. British Columbia had large tracts of wilderness full of natural resources, and few settlers. The colony was supported initially by fur trading and a series of gold rushes, but soon expanded to include coal mining, forestry, and fishing. Despite this growth, BC was still so isolated from the rest of Canada that mail was routed through San Francisco and most new arrivals came by sea; only a few braved the overland routes that necessitated crossing the Rocky Mountains. For the same reason, trade was predominately north/south with the United States rather than east/west with the rest of the British colonies. British Columbia’s remote location and lack of infrastructure meant that the colony soon accumulated large amounts of public debt, which was compounded by an economic downturn when the gold rush slowed. Together with political unrest, these economic conditions pushed BC to consider joining the new country.

A political cartoon highlighting BC's fears of losing their provincial autonomy.

Anthony Musgrave

British Columbia’s governor, Anthony Musgrave, was a friend of John A. MacDonald, and believed that joining Canada could be the answer to their problems. The British were no longer interested in controlling the increasingly expensive colony and were happy to promote the idea of joining the Confederation. Musgrave took a delegation to Ottawa with a list of demands that, much to their surprise, were all accepted. Canada offered to assume British Columbia’s debt and provide money annually for public works. They even pledged to build a railway connecting BC to the rest of Canada within 10 years, when the delegation had only asked for a wagon road!

The enthusiasm of the government to have BC join the Confederation was not shared by the Canadian population at large. The promised railway would be a massive expense and many thought it was useless, since much of the land between BC and Ontario was nearly uninhabited, and BC’s population was not much larger. However, Prime Minister MacDonald and many other wealthy businessmen saw British Columbia as an opportunity for expansion and profit. They also argued that without the railway it would be impossible to create a cohesive country.

The idea of joining Confederation was not universally supported in BC either. A small group sought to solve the financial problems of the colony by joining the United States. This was a legitimate solution, as most trade was already with the United States. Others wanted to keep their British connection, but worried that BC was too distant geographically to maintain proper communication. They felt this which would diminish the West’s political influence and lead to the eastern provinces making policy decisions that could result in BC losing control of their own future.  In answer to these fears, Canada promised that responsible government would be implemented in the province and BC would get six members of Parliament instead of the two they were entitled to by their population. 

A poster advertising the railway.

For other British Columbians, joining the Confederation was a means of gaining autonomy. The proposed terms included the implementation of responsible government. This meant that the government would be responsible to the people, rather than to the Monarch or representatives thereof, as they had been as a colony of Britain. This would give British Columbia the right to choose their leaders, influence policy, and have a say in public spending.  This provision had major appeal, and coupled with the promise of the railway it was enough to sway the colony in favour of joining the Confederation.  On July 20th, 1871, British Columbia became Canada’s sixth province.

A map of Canada in 1871, after Confederation.

Celebrating Canada

On July 1st 1867 the British North America Act was brought into effect, creating the new country from the four British Colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The event was celebrated with the ringing of the bells in the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto, and with bonfires and fireworks. People gathered together and celebrated with military displays and musical entertainment.  The following year there were several smaller festivities to celebrate the anniversary of Confederation, but the day did not become an official holiday until 1879, when it became known as Dominion Day, a reference to the creation of the Dominion of Canada on July 1st, 1867. 

An admission ticket to a fireworks display that was part of Dominion Day celebrations in 1889.

For many years it remained a minor event with the Governor General hosting a party and all other festivities being planned on a local level. In 1917 the country gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Confederation in much the same manner as the original day had been celebrated, with entertainment, contests, and food and drink aplenty. 

Dominion Day celebrations on Hastings Street in Vancouver in 1900 (left) and in Prince Rupert in 1909 .

Not everyone joined in or was included in these celebrations. Dominion Day was celebrated predominately by western European immigrants to the new country. The creation of the Dominion of Canada as a country independent of Great Britain was a celebration for those who had colonized the land, but it was not an event that First Nations communities wished to commemorate.

First Nations people were excluded from most of the privileges enjoyed by Canadians, and for obvious reasons did not feel like an accepted part of the communities of European-Canadians who were coming together to celebrate. Racism was commonplace and most communities saw First Nations as inferior and therefore unwelcome at many of the celebrations. There are some records of First Nations individuals competing in Dominion Day races and games, but generally First Nations were not welcome at the dances and picnics. As the West opened up to more settlement, large groups of Mennonites, Doukhobors, and Hutterites emigrated from Eastern Europe and created communities throughout the country. In British Columbia there were also growing communities of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian immigrants. These ethnic communities were often segregated and insular. They kept many of their own traditions, and like the First Nations communities, they were looked down upon and not included in public celebrations such as Dominion Day.

Lheidli Chief Louis with his family, circa 1900.

A  Lheidli Chief  with his family, circa 1900.

Courtesy of the BC Archives (D-00486).

A group of Doukhobor children in a Saskatchewan colony, circa 1890.

The Wah Chong family pictured outside the Wah Chong Laundry in Vancouver.

Although for decades Dominion Day was only celebrated as a large federal holiday on important anniversary years, by the early 1900s most Canadians had began to gather to observe the occasion annually at a local level. This time of year was very busy for people living in the Prince George area who were predominantly homesteaders, river men and fur traders. Celebrating Dominion Day was a nice way to take a break, enjoy the good weather and come together as a community. Celebrations included parades, picnics, and dances, along with races and competitions, all of which were organized by groups of willing volunteers and financed by local businesses.

Parades

Parades have long been a favourite way to celebrate special events, and Dominion Day was no exception. This was the perfect way to foster civic pride by showing off what your town had to offer.

An auto parade in Prince George, 1917. 

Courtesy of The Exploration Place (P993.11.2.60).

Prizes were organized and distributed by city councils as a way to encourage participation in activities. Floats were entered by businesses, police and fire departments, as well as clubs. Participants spent weeks planning and decorating floats for the parade, hoping to take home the prize for the best decorations. Depending on the group the themes of the floats reflected the services offered by businesses, while organizations might focus on patriotism, and current events. During World War I many floats promoted support of the war effort or ridiculed the enemy, while fire departments promoted safety in the home. Businesses along the parade route took advantage of the crowds by decorating their shop fronts and windows.

Locals could also participate by entering their decorated horses and ponies with the hopes of winning a popular vote prize.

Picnics

Food is an important part of celebrations across cultures, so for many communities Dominion Day was not complete without a picnic.  Though they were often part of a larger celebration taking place, picnics were also stand-alone events hosted by churches, schools, and service groups. The women of the group were in charge of organizing the food, with each woman preparing one or two dishes to contribute to the potluck-style meal. This was a time to pull out all the stops; treats that are commonplace today, such as ice cream and lemonade, were made from expensive luxury ingredients like sugar, ice, and imported lemons. These costly treats were reserved for special occasions like Dominion Day.

Dominion Day celebration at South Fort George, 1910.

Courtesy of The Exploration Place (P982.15.11).

Between planning the picnic and preparing the homemade dishes, it often took days, if not weeks, to get everything ready. Lakes or rivers were the most popular locations for picnics as swimming and canoeing could be included in the festivities, as well as offer relief from the summer heat.

Races

At the turn of the twentieth century, public celebrations in Canadian communities almost always included races for all ages. These were easy to prepare for, took very little equipment, and involved practically no cost.

Ladies race at July 1st celebration in Vanderhoof, 1915.

Courtesy of The Exploration Place (P982.23.2).

Committees were often formed to canvass local businesses for prizes and to arrange officials to run the races. Competitions such as foot races, hurdle races, and horse races were scheduled by age categories to let children and youth participate for the chance of a ribbon and perhaps a prize. There were also races designed specifically to promote fun and a good laugh. A popular one was the slow mule race, where participants were encouraged to race the slowest, most stubborn mule they owned, with the last participant across the finish line crowned the winner.

Contests

Friendly competition with friends and neighbours was a surefire way to gather people together for a community event. Northern British Columbia had a small population that was spread out over a large geographical area, and celebrations were often the only time there were enough people in one place to compete. Many towns held baseball or cricket games as part of Dominion Day celebrations, along with contests that were designed to be silly and fun.

Playing cricket in Fort George on July 1, 1867.

Courtesy of The Exploration Place (P996.7.3.1).

A ladies nail driving contest in Vanderhoof, 1915.

Courtesy of The Exploration Place (P982.23.3).

The shoe race, for example, required participants to remove the lace from one of their shoes and surrender the shoe to a communal pile. Once all the contestants had one bare foot, the race was on to reach the heap of footwear, find your own shoe, and re-lace it before returning to the starting line. Others games tested skills that would be part of the homesteader’s life, such as sawing logs or driving nails. In order to allow everyone to participate, most activities included categories for men, married women, unmarried women, and children. The results of the contests and races were often published in the local newspapers so the whole community could compare performances or cut the clipping out for a scrapbook.

Dances

A ball held July 1, 1916 at the Princess Theatre in South Fort George. 

Courtesy of The Exploration Place (P986.9.44).

Dominion Day celebrations were frequently capped off with a formal evening dance. In a time when recorded music was a novelty, the music for a community dance would be provided by a local talent.  Playing an instrument was a common skill, and a way of entertaining oneself when living on an isolated homestead. These musicians were volunteers who were willing to band together and provide entertainment for an event; they would usually spell each other off throughout the evening so that no one was left out of the dancing and socializing. Sometimes the music consisted of a violin and piano, but it could grow to a small orchestra depending on the talents of the locals at the time.

Although dances were held occasionally throughout the year for the whole community, a dance held for an occasion such as Dominion Day was more like a ball, providing adults with the opportunity to dress in their finest clothes and meet friends, court sweethearts, or even form new business relationships. These events were usually charity affairs with the money made from tickets and refreshments going to missionaries, the war effort, or local causes such as supporting the fire halls. During wartime these dances were put on by the Ladies of the Canadian Patriotic Fund, this organization had chapters throughout Canada, including one in Prince George. Hosting sophisticated events such as this also demonstrated how civilized the community had become.

Dominion Day celebrations on George Street in Prince George,  July 1, 1917.

Courtesy of The Exploration Place (P981.9.97).

Annual celebrations such as Dominion Day served to bring community members together, foster a sense of civic pride, and give people a break from their

often highly labour intensive day to day lives.

 

As Canada expanded to include more provinces into the fledgling country, this holiday was one that was celebrated across the country in similar manners despite the differences of the regions. Fun, frivolity, and a little friendly competition was the order of the day.

 

As the country grew and matured the celebrations expanded and began including more of the previously excluded groups. Today multiculturalism and Canada’s diversity are common themes across the country. After the centennial celebration of Confederation in 1967 Dominion Day became more federally celebrated and popularly known as Canada Day. However, it wasn’t until 1983 that the name was officially changed. After 150 years July 1st is still a celebration designed to promote patriotism across a vast and diverse country.  

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Courtesy of The Exploration Place (P982.15.11).