One Dominion: On the Path to Confederation

Cemetery Tour-03

Canada 150 celebrations happening across the country seem to emphasize big, bright and loud. Why would we commemorate the 150th anniversary of Confederation with a guided walk through Victoria Lawn Cemetery? Our Guided Spirit Walks provide a space to intimately explore the nuances of Confederation leading up to 1867 as it became a reality for the people of St. Catharines.  It is an opportunity to hear the voices and understand the perspectives of those involved – and some of those excluded – in the politics of the time. “One Dominion: On the Path to Confederation” commemorates the event while complicating the traditional narratives of ‘Canada 150’. The big, bright, and loud moments for our Canada 150 celebration will be found in the retelling of our local history.

Aware of the diverse people and communities who made up St. Catharines in the 1860s, we knew that not everyone would have been on board with Confederation during all those conferences and debates. In our research, we found a handful of St. Catharines politicians and businessmen whom were adamantly against Confederation. These men were part of a movement usually referred to as the Anti-Confederate movement. Plenty of politicians across the new Dominion, now vilified by time and memory, were against a political union for a surprisingly wide variety of reasons.

Emma Currie, wife of J.G. Currie who resigned from the Legislative Council over issues of Confederation. As with most women from the period, we don’t know much about Emma – but one could probably imagine the tumultuous years in which Currie wrote hundreds of editorials railing against Confederation. Copyright: St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre, STCM 2081-N

Since our ‘Spirit Walks’ are theatrical by nature, we were pretty excited about these findings. Conflict makes for some exciting dialogue and memorable scenes. Think of your favourite television show or stage play. You likely remember the big, dramatic, emotional moments the most. Well, this year’s tour is filled with big, dramatic, emotional moments. Scene after scene takes place at the headstones of the people who were in the thick of it in 1866 and 1867. The truth revealed from our research reveals that many people were conflicted about Confederation.

Sir James Rea Benson, Senator. He was selected by his peers, including Thomas Rodman Merritt, in St. Catharines to replace J.G. Currie on the Legislative Council. Benson served as MP for Lincoln in 1867 before being appointed to the Senate in 1868.  Copyright: St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre STCM 1730-N

While we’re excited about the big, dramatic, bright, emotional, and sometimes loud moments, we are more excited about this opportunity for audiences to reconsider the ‘done deal’ that Confederation has come to be thought of in history classrooms across the country. It’s always important to reconsider stories we’ve been told and have accepted at face-value.

Thomas Rodman Merritt, with fantastic moustache, builder of Rodman Hall, and son of Welland Canal-founder William Hamilton Merritt, also served as MP from 1868 to 1874. As one of the local leading businessmen, Merritt is likely to be credited for encouraging his friend and business partner Sir James Rae Benson to accept nomination to the Legislative Council. Copyright: St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre STCM 1553-N

Don’t worry though – our fantastic volunteer actors are ready to make you chuckle and appreciate their stories as you question these existential questions about the founding of our country. The actors will present fresh perspectives of Confederation from many old stalwarts of St. Catharines history: Thomas Rodman Merritt, John Charles Rykert, (later both MPs) and Sir James Rea Benson, St. Catharines’ only Senator, appointed by his pal John A. MacDonald in 1868. Others too, present the forgotten perspectives of this important political event: the wives of these men, and some of the ladies who were saddled with organizing celebrations last-minute for a world-changing event, one from which they were purposely excluded.

John Charles Rykert served as an MPP from 1867-1878 and as an MP from 1882-1891, representing Lincoln in both provincial and federal parliaments. Copyright: St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre, STCM 2206-N

This year’s Guided Spirit Walks will take place on September 8, 9, 15 & 16 at 6pm and 7pm.  Performances are 50 minutes in length and includes a leisurely stroll around the Old Section of Victoria Lawn Cemetery (be sure to wear your walking shoes, appropriate clothing and some bug spray). Performances run rain or shine. Tickets are $10.25 per person and can be purchased through the Museum’s website or by calling the Museum at 905-984-8880.

Sara Nixon is Public Programmer and Adrian Petry is Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum; they also co-wrote and co-directed the 2017 Guided Spirit Walks.

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