Manitoba’s first thanksgivings — only proclaimed following bountiful harvests

by Bruce Cherney

During Manitoba’s early years, observing Thanksgiving Day was a hit or miss affair. It depended entirely upon public enthusiasm and the resulting desire to ask the residing lieutenant-governor to proclaim a day of thanks for the year’s harvest. Enthusiasm for Thanksgiving Day was highest in years of plenty but muted in years when the harvest faltered or some natural disaster struck.

Unlike today, a Thanksgiving Day could occur virtually at any time in the fall. For example, the latest ever that Thanksgiving Day in Manitoba was celebrated was on December 5 in 1872, and this came only after some pressure was exerted upon Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald to issue a proclamation.

Presbyterian Minister George Bryce wrote on November 9, 1872, to Manitoba Chief Justice Alexander Morris who became the lieutenant-governor a year later: “The Three Protestant Churches in the Province have agreed through their clergy on Thursday, the 5th day of December, as a suitable day for returning thanks to God for the mercies of the past year, and in behalf of the Presbyterian Church I beg, in order to its better observance, that that day may be graciously set aside by Public Proclamation, as was done last year.”

The lieutenant-governor acceded to the request and on November 15 issued the public proclamation.

“Thanksgiving Day was very generally observed in Winnipeg,” declared the Manitoba Free Press on December 7, 1872. 

After becoming a Canadian province in 1870, Manitoba’s first Thanksgiving Day occurred a year later when Archibald said the province had been blessed by “an abundant harvest during the season now past, and whereas it is proper and becoming that some public and united expression should be given of devout thankfulness to the Giver of all good for the mercies so bestowed.”

Technically, there had been two days of thanksgiving in 1872, since the federal government issued its own proclamation for a “Day of General Thanksgiving” for the restoration of health to the Prince of Wales.

The day to be set aside by the provincial government was November 16, 1871, which Archibald declared to be a public holiday. This Thanksgiving Day celebration was overshadowed by political unease in Manitoba. Newspapers were filled with news of a mass meeting organized in opposition to the lieutenant-governor and the anticipated arrival of troops from Eastern Canada to help with the already suppressed Fenian threat from the United States.

The celebration on October 16,  1873, was deemed by the Free Press as having been “generally observed, the fact that it was Thanksgiving Day not having been generally understood.”

During the next couple of years, Thanksgiving Day was actually completely ignored, which was not unexpected since the province’s crops had been ravaged by plagues of locusts. What had looked like a bountiful harvest was decimated for the third consecutive year because of the insatiable insects. On July, 21, 1875, instead of calling for a day of thanks, a day of “humiliation and prayer” was proclaimed so that the people of Manitoba could humble themselves and ask God to save them from the plague.

A year later, the locusts did not return, so Manitobans felt that a Thanksgiving Day would be appropriate. 

“Not onlyy has the harvest been more generous than that of any other part off the Dominion, or perhaps any part off the continent, but the indications that for a long time to come we are to be free from the ravages of the locust ...,” according to an editorial in the Free Press on November 18, 1876.

The Free Press said it was time to once again observe the holiday because “few communities have as many and as great reasons for giving hearty thanks to a merciful and an indulgent Providence than that which has its abode in  this favored Prairie Province. We have an abundant harvest; we have not been visited by pestilence in any form; there is peace within our borders. We are a prosperous people, and ought to be contented and grateful people.”

“Thanksgiving was generally observed in the city,” according to the Free Press, “nearly all places of business were closed. Services were held in different churches, which were largely attended; and all sermons appropriate to the occasion were preached. In the afternoon there were large numbers of pleasure seekers, and made the day a big bonanza for the livery men (those who offered horse-drawn wagons for rent). The day passed off very quietly.”

The federal government entered the picture in 1879, declaring its first official day of thanksgiving for November 6, coinciding with the very day that the Manitoba government had also set aside.

The first time Thanksgiving Day was held in honour of the year’s bounty in October — like today’s Thanksgiving Day — was in 1881, when the 20th was proclaimed by both Ottawa and the Manitoba government. 

The harvest of that year was indeed bountiful — just over one-million bushels of wheat, nearly 1.3-million bushels of oats, 253,604 bushels of barley and 556,193 bushels of potatoes.

By 1898, the Canadian government was content to have Thanksgiving Day coincide with the American celebration on the last Thursday in November. Canadians weren’t too happy with this date, since the day was too late in the season and too close to Christmas, so the next year Thanksgiving Day was changed once again to October, this time the third Monday of the month.

Thanksgiving Day continued its wanderings on the calendar in the years immediately following the First World War.

The Armistice Day Act of June 4, 1921 merged Thanksgiving with the day to celebrate the end of the war. The act said: “Throughout Canada in each and every year, the Monday in the week in which the 11th day of November shall ... be a legal holiday and shall be kept and observed as such under the name Armistice Day. The holiday commonly called Thanksgiving Day being a day usually appointed in the month of October or November by proclamation ... shall whenever appointed be proclaimed and observed for and on Armistice day.”

At the time, this would have been a natural evolution given the sacrifice made by Canada during the war. In total, over 620,000 (the population was just 7.8 million in 1914) were in the armed forces and over 60,000 died and 172,000 were wounded by the end of the war in 1918 while serving “King and Country.”

The combined celebration survived until 1931, when the two observerances were separated with Thanksgiving Day to be held on the second Monday of October. This was the official day until January 31, 1957, when the second Monday of October was permanently set aside by the federal government, the date when  Thanksgiving is still celebrated today.

100 years ago

An editorial in the Winnipeg-based Morning Telegram said, “that Canada never had greater cause for thanksgiving than on this 18th of October, 1906.

“Western Canada needs no one to bear testimony to its great prosperity ... There is no ghost at the feast of this national day of thanksgiving ...

“In Canada there has been domestic peace, freedom from physical disturbance and an abundance for all. The man who asked for work has found it.

“A nation which could not be happy under these circumstances would not deserve to be happy. Canadians are not so blind that they cannot see the manifold blessings they have enjoyed during the past year, nor are they so ungrateful that they cannot enter into the spirit of a day of national thanksgiving.”

The Telegram’s front page contained tens of messages from across Canada, under the heading Why Canada Honors This Thanksgiving: “... The opinions are diversified but there is general reference to bountiful crops, freedom from disaster, peaceful national relations and marked advancement in  all that leads to desirable citizenship in a free and progressive country.”

The messages of belief in Canada’s future as a great nation were in keeping with the words of Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who said in his much-quoted speech on January 18, 1904, at the Canadian Club in Ottawa: “The 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century.” (Often shortened to, “The 20th century belongs to Canada.”)

Canadians had good reason to believe Laurier’s words in 1906 — the nation was once again enjoying prosperity after experiencing an economic downturn at the start of the century. 

Newspapers reported that Winnipeggers were thankful for the blessings of the past year and showed their gratitude by attending places of worship to give thanks. At Grace Church, Rev. S.P. Rose, pastor of the new church on Broadway, gave a special Thanksgiving service at 11 o’clock that was followed by a ladies’ aid supper between 6 and 8 o’clock in the evening.

The newspapers said a holiday spirit prevailed throughout Winnipeg’s streets.

Theodore Sweet, the ex-mayor of St. Catherines, Ontario, who had just moved to Winnipeg to establish a wholesale stationery store, said he had never seen “a city with more lively streets upon Thanksgiving Day. Why down east there is almost no person on the streets. They are all at home, feasting on the good things. Your streets had large crowds on them today to my surprise. I expected to see the regular dull times about the city and was very glad so see differently.”

Sweet, who had last been to Winnipeg 12 years previously, was pleasantly surprised by the progress made in the city and predicted it could one day rival Chicago as “the centre of all trade in the west.”

This was an acknowledgement of the Winnipeg claim that the city would soon become the “Chicago of the North.”

Winnipeggers were also anxious to use Thanksgiving Day to escape the hurly-burly of the city. “Hundreds of people whom the routine of daily work usually keeps in town took the occasion for a little run out of town on many morning trains and returned in the evening,” reported the Morning Telegram.

“In the realm of sport and amusement, the holiday makers found a large list of attractions.”

People attended a road race along Portage Avenue and theatres “played to crowded houses at every performance.”

Perhaps the best reason for observing Thanksgiving Day that year was the banner across the top of the front page, which read, “For what we have received.”