Happy Canada Day! It’s Canada’s 153rd birthday today and I don’t need to remind you that celebrations look very different this year. Rather than dwelling on what isn’t this year, a look back to the very first Canada Day celebrations in St. Catharines can teach us something valuable.
On July 1,1867, the people of Canada would have actually celebrated Dominion Day – not Canada Day. Confederation marked the formation of the “Dominion of Canada,” meaning that Canada was granted semi-independence but continued to constitutionally adhere to the British Crown. This was a big moment for Canada, marking the country’s growing autonomy.
While it would take the government until 1879 to officially designate Dominion Day a public holiday, grassroots celebrations among communities sprinkled the country that July 1 in 1867. Below is an except from the St. Catharines Constitutional, describing the very first Dominion Day celebration in St. Catharines. You may recognize a few familiar places and names from our history!
The glorious First of July was observed as a holiday in St. Catharines, and although no formal programme of festivities was prepared, the people generally managed to enjoy themselves very well in various ways. The Dominion’s birth was announced by a thundering salute from Capt. Wilson’s batter of artillery, shortly after midnight, which was again repeated at seven o’clock a.m. As the morning advanced flags were hoisted from many buildings, and the citizens began to move around. About 200 persons availed themselves of the excursion to Toronto per steamer America, and large numbers organized themselves into picnic parties, proceeding to various shady nooks in the surrounding country. At 10 o’clock a fine company of volunteers arrived from St. Ann’s to take part in the military movements. It seems they were under the impression that a general muster of the 10th Battalion would take place here; but in this they were disappointed. Only one other infantry company (Capt. Macdonald’s) and a few men from No. 3 appeared in uniform. These assembled on St. Paul street at half past eleven, and Col. Currie took the command. Marching to a field in rear of the Grammar School, where Captain Wilson’s artillery and Capt. Gregory’s cavalry were found posted, the infantry were drawn up in line. A feu de joie was then fired and three cheers given for the Dominion of Canada, after which some skirmishing took place, and the military parade was ended.
In the evening there was a Strawberry Festival in Montebello Gardens, under the auspices of ladies connected with the Canadian Presbyterian Church. The grounds were illuminated with coloured lanterns and an abundant supply of strawberries, ice cream & etc.. was furnished at a small cost to all who wished to indulge in such luxuries, while the Town Band discoursed excellent music. There was quite a large and gay crowd present, and the proceeds must have amounted to a respectable sum. Open air festivals at this season are always very successful when the weather is favorable. We must not forget to mention that several private residences were beautifully illuminated. Foremost amongst these were the handsome dwellings and pleasure grounds of James Taylor, Esq. Hon James R. Benson, H. Mittleberger, Esq. the Mayor, and Sheriff Woodruff. Messrs. W. L. Copeland, W. Greenwood, T. McIntyre, Dr. Goodman, C. P. Camp, L. Shickluna, S. S. Junkin, Calvin Brown’s building, adjoining the Post office, and others made a good display. Rockets and other fire works were likewise exploded in various parts of town. Altogether, everyone seemed anxious to mark with becoming respect the birth of our new Dominion, and it is to be regretted that some concerted action was not had a few days before, that would have ensured a more marked and popular approval of so auspicious an occasion. – “Dominion Day,” St. Catharines Constitutional, 2 July 1867.
I love this passage for two reasons. First, its description of the July 1 festivities paints a vivid description of life in St. Catharines in 1867, from the festivities that took place at Montebello Gardens (now Montebello Park), to the mention of the decorated homes of St. Catharines’ most prominent and well-to-do citizens.
Second, readers get the very clear message that the people of St. Catharines were not prepared to actually celebrate Dominion Day. The author alludes to the lack of a formal programme or schedule of festivities throughout their recounting of the day’s events. The author describes small picnic gatherings and families illuminating their homes. They way you celebrate doesn’t have to be the biggest or loudest or brightest to show your Canadian pride, instead it’s the meaning behind what you do. Perhaps these picnics or home decorations sparked July 1 family traditions that would last generations.
Despite not having a grand plan, the citizens of St. Catharines were able to come together and celebrate in the best way they could, with all that they were given. Despite there not being a formal Dominion Day programme, the people of St. Catharines managed to celebrate with small picnics, a military parade, a Strawberry Festival, residential light displays, and even fireworks! There might not have been a plan, but it’s not the plan that matters. What mattered here, is that whole community came together using what means they had to celebrate something important to them.
Over time, July 1 celebrations in St. Catharines, and across Canada, became more formalized and refined into what we have come to expect today– but that sense of community and togetherness found in the 1867 festivities have remained at the core. So today, although we may not be able to celebrate Canada Day in-person like we’ve all planned and expected – take a lesson from 1867, and celebrate what you’ve got, and who’ve you got.
Canadians across the country are coming together in incredible ways virtually to celebrate Canada Day in the biggest way we can. The City of St. Catharines has a full day of virtual festivities planned, as well as the Government of Canada in place of its traditional Parliament Hill celebrations, they even have a great celebration kit families can enjoy! This is a time to make new Canada Day memories, and to remember why we should be so proud to be Canada! Happy Canada Day!
Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.