Historicist: Canada, Day One
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Historicist: Canada, Day One

Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
2008_06_28mechanics.jpg
Mechanics’ Institute, William Notman, 1868. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Canada Day weekend is upon us, with the nation’s birthday serving as the perfect excuse to celebrate the start of summer. Fireworks, public meals, outdoor concerts—Torontonians will be out in force for these events over the next few days, much as they were on the day our nation gained status as a dominion.
From 6 a.m. onwards, the smell of roast ox filled the area at the foot of Church Street (now the St. Lawrence Market Green P lot). The roast went on all day, with the meat distributed to the city’s poor. A few blocks north on Church at Adelaide Street, those wishing to deliver a religious blessing on the new nation attended a service sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance at the Mechanics’ Institute (an ancestor of the Toronto Public Library).


2008_06_28%20confed%20announcement.jpgOver at The Globe, editor George Brown spent all night working on a lengthy essay on the history of the new country. Copies of the paper were quickly snapped up once it rolled off the press at 7 a.m. Brown’s editorial raised an issue that still affects Canada, western grievances (even if the “west” in this case is Ontario).

So far as the people of Upper Canada are concerned, the inauguration of the new constitution may well be heartily rejoiced over as the brightest day in their calendar. The Constitution of 1867 will be famous in the historic annals of Upper Canada, not only because it brought two flourishing Maritime States into alliance with the Canadas, and opened up new markets for our products, but because it relieved the inhabitants of Western Canada from a system of injustice and demoralization under which they had suffered for a long number of years.

As for what ills might plague the new nation, one reading between the lines might detect a swipe at Brown’s political rivals/former coalition partners in the run-up to Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald and the Conservative party:

The only danger that threatens us is, lest the same men who have so long misgoverned us, should continue to govern us still, and the same reckless prodigality exhibited in past years should be continued in the future; but this we do not fear. We firmly believe that from this day, Canada embarks on a new and happier career, and a time of great prosperity is before us.

As the day went on, the city filled with revelers. Steamships from Hamilton and St. Catharines were packed with tourists coming for the celebrations, while trains brought in those from surrounding towns and villages. Many assembled at parade grounds west of Spadina Avenue around 10:30 a.m. to catch three hours of military reviews which, according to the next day’s edition of The Leader, were a popular spectator activity.

It would seem as if the citizens of Toronto and the residents of the surrounding country would never become tired of witnessing reviews of the troops. It is only necessary to announce that a review is to be held to secure the attendance of thousands of spectators, from the babe in swaddling clothes to the hoary-headed and infirm old man.

The paper went on to provide detailed of each regiment’s drill, complimenting each on their regalia and discipline. Sunny skies and a cool breeze off the lake made for a comfortable afternoon for the spectators. The soldiers were rewarded for their three-hour show with free ale paid for by contracting magnate Casimir Gzowski.
If military activities weren’t one’s taste, there was a fundraising picnic to aid the construction of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, completed three years later (and now known as Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on St. Patrick Street). A crowd of around 3,000 attended.
2008_06_28postoffice.jpgAs night fell, light displays decorated city buildings. The central post office on Toronto Street (later the headquarters of Argus Corporation, where Conrad Black was videotaped removing documents in 2005) featured gaslights arranged to spell “VR” (in honour of Queen Victoria) and “Dominion of Canada.” Most of the night’s activities took place in Queen’s Park, whose decorations The Leader described as “a most enchanting appearance in consequence of the large number of Chinese lanterns that were suspended from the trees and in front of the private residences on the east side of the park.” Fireworks were provided by a Rochester, New York firm and divided into 14 themed segments, including the city motto of “Industry, Integrity, Intelligence”, exotic locales like Tripoli and a rousing finale of “God Save the Queen”, all accompanied by two military bands.
Surrounding villages saw their share of celebrations, the most prominent being Yorkville’s. A flag-draped arch was erected at Yonge and Bloor, bearing the words “Dominion of Canada Our Home.” A fireworks display was held on a common west of Scollard Street, where the likely fireworks in 2008 would be a bite into a hot pepper at Whole Foods.
Sources: Confederation Day announcement from The Globe, July 1, 1867. Additional material from the July 2, 1867 edition of The Leader. Post Office on Toronto Street photo by William Notman, 1868, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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