Winnipeg’s early July 1 celebrations — internal conflicts still evident

by Bruce Cherney

While the other four provinces celebrated Dominion Day on July 1, 1870, the residents of the Red River Settlement could be forgiven for being preoccupied by other matters that seemed to be of a more pressing concern.

A conflict had smouldered in the community between old and new residents and the Canadian government and local claims of rights, which 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.

The new Province of Manitoba had been created scant weeks before Dominion Day 1870, by an act of the Canadian Parliament on May 12, although the official entrance of the fifth province into Confederation was not to occur until July 15. 

In the meantime, the 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. 

To relieve the tension, it was far easier for the residents to continue with their long tradition of celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24 “as a general holiday all over the settlement; in town the stores and other businesses were closed and people generally went in for a good time ...,” reported the New Nation on May 28, 1870. 

The Queen’s annual birthday celebrations in the community had been reported in Red River’s first newspaper, the Nor’Wester (started in December 1859), in 1860. “The celbration of this anniversary is regarded as a matter of course throughout Her Majesty’s Dominions — not even excepting Red River ...”

The New Nation said that the day generally “passed off very pleasantly and quietly, with the exception of the little 

incidents ...”

Growing anxiety in the community was caused by the approach of an armed force led by British Colonel Garnet Wolseley, whose purpose was reputably 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 of the British regulars and Canadian militia that had set out from the East. The militiamen from Ontario believed their mission was to avenge the execution of Thomas Scott by the Louis Riel-led provisional government on March 4.

The only unresolved issues were the intentions of the approaching army and the question of amnesty for the leaders of the provisional government — Riel, Ambroise Lepine and William O’Donoghue were the most threatened. 

“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 .”

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.”

Following the troubling events of 1870, the first Dominion Day (now officially called Canada Day) was celebrated in Manitoba.

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 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 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,” said the Free Press.

On July 1, there was no repeat of the day-long deluge a year earlier. The Free Press 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 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. 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.”

This was a significant crowd for the time, since the population of Winnipeg was just 1,869 people. According to the first province-wide census in 1871, the population of Manitoba was 25,228 people. 

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 altered 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 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. 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.” 

It should be noted that Winnipeg streets in the early 1870s were unpaved and sidewalks were made of wooden planks. Whenever it rained, the streets became a quagmire.

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.”

There was one incident that marred the 1873 celebrations. The Free Press referred to this incident as “The White Horse Plains Outage.”

Five members of a Mennonite settlers’ delegation were travelling back from Riding Mountain on July 1 under the escort of William Hespeler, a federal immigration official, when about three kilometres west of House’s Hotel on the White Horse Plains, a Metis named McKay, who was described as celebrating Dominion Day with gusto and was “drunk,” stopped the party.

McKay engaged George Rath, the driver of the lead wagon in a “spirited” conversation. McKay was said to have struck Rath with his whip and Rath retaliated by knocking McKay’s hat off.

After picking up his hat and leaving the scene, McKay was heard to say, “I will kill you.”

McKay returned with the Metis men Jackson and Desjarlais. When McKay again made his threat to kill Rath, his two companions took his gun and broke it, ending the encounter.

But when the party reached House’s Hotel, a large group of Metis confronted them.

“Hespeler pled with them and told them they would be punished ... He also told them he would protect the Mennonites with his own life. All night long he stood guard at the door of the Mennonites, one hand on his sword and one on his revolver,” wrote H.J. Gerbrant in his book, Adventure in Faith.

A dispatch rider named Warner was able to get a message through to Lieutenant-Governor Morris in Winnipeg: “We are attacked by halfe Breeds — we are in danger of  our lives — please send soldiers at once as we can not leave the place.”

The 50-man Provisional Battalion, which had earlier taken part in  the Dominion Day celebrations, was dispatched west. They reached the hotel at 5:30 a.m. on July 2 and freed the party and imprisoned the three Metis involved in the original encounter.

“There is little doubt that the dastardly outrage committed upon the Mennonite delegation by the French halfbreeds on Tuesday last at White Horse Plains was in itself a casual or impromptu occurrence,” a Free Press editorial said. “It seems more than likely that directly the affair may be attributed to a recklessness begotten of drunkenness.”

Meanwhile, the Gazette tried to link the incident to Riel and a political meeting for the electorate of Provencher, which was refuted by the Manitoban.

A letter to the editor in Le Metis signed by “Un Amis” (a friend) ridiculed the government for sending out the army to settle an “ordinary Dominion Day brawl.”

The courts later cleared Riel of any direct involvement and the cause of the incident was attributed to the over-consumption of liquor. The three accused were made to post a $200 bail bond.

The Free Press editorial said the outrage on White Horse Plains “ was but a manifestation of the spirit of particular rights and privileges which they (Metis) esteem themselves the possessors of in this country.”

In the same editorial, the newspaper said the Metis have a “growing disposition ... to resist any immigration which does not speak their language and attend their places of worship ...,” and that the incident at White Horse Plains was “only the latest of a number of attempts at inculcating these ideas by force of arms.” The editorial called the Metis’ attempt to impose their language on the province “silly.” 

“The sooner the idea gets abroad that Manitoba is a British Province the better,” ended the editorial.

Just three years before, the New Nation on August 27, 1870 — had said in an editorial of its own: “We are now entering upon our new career as a Province, and it is the duty of every one to unite in promoting the interests of his country whether by birth or adoption; and with the stifling of party rancour and petty strife ...

“We are Canadians — let us be so in the true spirit, and work united to further our country’s interests from sea to sea.”

What role each group — French- speaking or English-speaking — was to play was still being worked out three years later in an atmosphere of “party rancour and petty strife.” 

Dominion Day was celebrated with widespread enthusiasm in the early days of the province, but it seems to have implied different things to different people. Any belief system to explain Manitoba’s role as a province within Confederation ultimately depended upon motives dictated by membership within a particular group. And, all groups had their roots firmly planted in the triple bugbear of language, religion and race.