Today, Manitobans are among the most enthusiastic Canadians when it comes to celebrating Canada Day, but that has not always been the case. In fact, the first year of the province’s existence was so marred by internal strife that Canada Day (then called Dominion Day) wasn’t even celebrated. But once Manitobans became more accustomed to their position in Canada, they began to celebrate Dominion Day with what can be best described as “unbridled” enthusiasm.
The new Province of Manitoba had been created scant weeks before Dominion Day 1870, by an act of the Canadian Parliament on May 12. In the meantime, the Red River Settlement’s residents were uncertain about the implications of their new status as a province in the wake of the turmoil that had disrupted the community since the fall of 1869. As such, on Dominion Day in 1870, the residents of the Red River Settlement were still preoccupied by a smouldering conflict between old and new residents over rights, such as land claims, language and religion. The conflict had ignited into a full-blown fire in the fall of 1869, increased in vigour in the winter of 1869-70 and was temporarily extinguished by the spring of 1870. But, the embers of dissatisfaction still glowed and only needed a new source of fuel to reignite the blaze.
Growing anxiety in the community was caused by the approach of an armed force led by Colonel Garnet Wolseley, whose purpose was reputedly to quell the “rebellion” in the settlement and to restore peace and order. That the Red River had been quite peaceful for months had little bearing on the official and unofficial mission. Militiamen from Ontario believed their mission was to avenge the execution of Thomas Scott by the Louis Riel-led provisional government on March 4, which contributed to another round of troubled times in the settlement.
“Our mission is one of peace,” assured Wolseley in a July 23, 1870, letter to the New Nation, “and the sole object of the expedition is to secure Her Majesty’s sovereign authority .” But in his private correspondence, Wolseley was significantly more hostile, claiming he wanted a fight so he could cleanse Canada of Riel and “vermin of his ilk.”
Due to the unsettling events of 1870, the first official Dominion Day celebration in Manitoba occurred a year later. The Manitoban reported on July 1, 1871, that: “Dominion Day was celebrated in Winnipeg in true Canadian style. In the morning at sunrise a royal salute was given, which made noise enough to intimate the arrival of the holiday. Large numbers of people from all parts of the province flocked in during the day and by noon the concourse on the common was considerable. Games of various description were engaged in and in the evening a moonlight excursion given by the owners of the (steamboat) Selkirk was largely taken advantage of.”
The 1872 Dominion Day was deemed “a genuine failure in Winnipeg” because rain fell in torrents and everyone stayed at home.
On the other hand, the Manitoba Free Press reported glowingly on the 1873 Dominion Day. Businesses and schools were closed at noon in Winnipeg and neighbouring communities, and the weather was “extremely fine. According to the newspaper, “ during the entire afternoon the roads leading townwards were thronged with pleasure seekers ...” There was such a large crowd gathered in the city that that the “streets seethed and boiled over with holiday making humanity.”
The start of the celebrations was signalled by the first gun of the royal salute from the military camp. Once heard, the people hurried to the camp on the bank of the Assiniboine River. The royal salute was taken by Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris and Lieutenant-Colonel Osborn Smith. After the ranks were inspected, the band played “the national anthem,” according to the July 5, 1873, Manitoba Gazette. This would not have been today’s O’ Canada, but God Save the Queen.
The hoisting of a flag on a shanty in the direction of “Yellowhead Pass” showed the throng where the games were to be held, and “... presently there were at least three thousand people and the games were proceeded right merrily.”
A “band chariot” festooned with flags drove through the streets of Winnipeg, “playing at intervals during the afternoon,” reported the Free Press.
Four horse races were held in the afternoon, as were races for people.
After the evening meal, the steamer Selkirk was used for an excursion on the Red. “Previously a barge had been brought alongside and fitted up so as to gave the lads and lassies an opportunity of shaking the ‘light fantastic too,’ and Winnipeg had scarce been lost sight of ere the band struck up a lively air ... at once made the ball-room a scene of whirling calico and broadcloth,” reported the Free Press.
The dance party ended when it had appeared that the band had “wet their whistles” too often and could no longer play their instruments. But the party couldn’t end prematurely, so the steamer docked and a messenger was sent to a settler’s house to “procure a string band,” which was said to consist “of a bowless violin with two strings attached, which produced sounds like the midnight caterwauling of fifty felines.
“This music proving unacceptable, and fresh spirits having come to the aid of the original bandsmen, a gallop was attempted, but owing to the unevenness of the floor ... the experiment was tried of rolling around, which proving a failure, the effort was abandoned ...”
As the boat headed home to Winnipeg, vocalists “struck up a chorus which ... filled the balmy air of heaven as with the croaking of a mighty army of bull-frogs, the lovely rain came down in torrents, and the delighted excursionists felt happy away down in their boots, as they pictured to themselves the pleasant walk homeward from the wharf through the darkness and mud.”
The Free Press said that ladies walking home at the end of the Dominion Day celebrations “pinned up their skirts and ‘slid’ for home.
“Thrilling adventures and hairbreadth escapes from falling into ditches and cellars are without number, and many a fair damsel woke up next morning with a faint remembrance of having left her slipper somewhere between home and Fort Garry (where the steamer docked).”
Despite the difficulties with the band and music and the walk home, the newspaper reported “there never was an excursion which so completely satisfied those engaged in it.”
How’s that for a real rip-roarin’ Canada Day celebration? Apparently, celebrating with “excessive” zeal, which is invariably frowned on today, was normal when commemorating “old-time” Dominion Days.