Becoming accustomed to being Canadians was a tad difficult for the residents of the new province of Manitoba in 1870. While the other four provinces celebrated Dominion Day (now Canada Day) on July 1, 1870, the residents of the Red River Settlement could be forgiven for being preoccupied by other matters. A conflict had smouldered in the community between old and new residents and Ottawa over local rights, which ignited into a full-blown fire in the fall of 1869, increased to a conflagration 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.
Yet, for all the previous year’s uncertainties, a year later the Manitoban reported: “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 for 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. “... no sign of the holiday or rejoicing was seen but three or four (British) flags drooping listlessly in the rain. Not even an effigy was burned in the evening,” according to a report by the Manitoban.
On the other hand, the Manitoba Free Press reported enthusiastically on the 1873 Dominion Day. Businesses and schools were closed at noon in Winnipeg and in neighbouring communities.
“The Confederation of the Provinces having come into fashion on the First of July, 1867, and the people of Manitoba, feeling somewhat inclined to express much satisfaction thereat, concluded to celebrate the 6th anniversary of the important event in a manner at once expressive of unbounded loyalty and generally bully,” reported the Free Press.
On July 1, there was no repeat of the day-long deluge a year earlier. The Free Press article said the weather was “extremely fine, and during the entire afternoon the roads leading townwards were thronged with pleasure seekers in wagons, exhibitors of the tailor’s and milliner’s arts in carriages, conservators of the country’s customs on horseback and independent democrats on foot.”
There was such a large crowd gathered in Winnipeg that the “streets seethed and boiled over with holiday making humanity,” the newspaper continued.
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. The national anthem 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. The newspaper said the races were “square” (honest) with the exception of the trotting races because drivers were determined to win at any cost. “There was notably one instance in which it looked as if it would have taken a very slight shove on the reins of a particular horse to materially alter the distribution of prizes ...”
As during the two earlier Dominion Day celebrations, races for residents were also held. J.J. Johnston was a multiple winner, taking the 100-yard foot race and the blindfold race. He also placed second in the sack race, the running high jump and the running long jump, winning a total of $20.
Another multiple prize winner was William Black, who won the running high jump, “putting the stone,” the running long jump and the standing jump and placed second in the 100-yard foot race. He won a total of $19.
Towards the end of the horse races, a rain shower broke out and people quickly deserted the grounds and headed for home.
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 give 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. 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 and the consequent difficulty of keeping on their feet, the experiment was tried of rolling around, which proving a failure, the effort was abandoned ... and the musicians not being able to agree as to whose turn it was to play, came to the individual conclusion that it wasn’t theirs anyhow, and refused to blow a note.”
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.”
As is the case with today’s Canada Day, Dominion Day was enthusiastically celebrated in the early days of the province. The only real difference is in the manner of celebration, although the bank of the Assiniboine River (today it’s Assiniboine Park) remains a popular gathering place for festivities on July 1.
The Forks, Winnipeg’s historic gathering place for over 6,000 years at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, also is holding Canada Day celebrations, with entertainment on three stages, ending with a fireworks display at 11 p.m.