Historicist: Patriotic Fervour at the CNE
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Historicist: Patriotic Fervour at the CNE

At the Canadian National Exhibition during the First World War, Torontonians on the home front got a glimpse of the war effort overseas.

CNE Midway, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 877.

As early as February 1914, at a meeting of the Canadian National Exhibition Association, it was decided that the coming summer’s fair would be declared a “Peace Year” to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812. Organizers hoped to celebrate Canada’s peaceful relationships with Britain and the United States since that conflict by securing musical representation from England’s band of the Grenadier Guards and the U.S. Marine Band, among other plans.

However, as the association was laying out its plans, across the sea, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, touched off an international crisis. By mid-summer, Britain—and by extension Canada—was drawn into the First World War, and the CNE’s planned “Peace Year” took on added symbolic weight.

CNE Midway game featuring caricatures of Kaiser Wilhelm, between 1914 and 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 880.

Despite initial rumours that it would be cancelled due to the outbreak of war, the Exhibition went ahead as scheduled in late August. “Peace Year” was retained as the theme. A huge display was erected at the Dufferin Memorial Entrance with “the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes intertwined with the dove of peace surmounting them, while at the sides [were] panels, one emblematic of the United States and the other of Canada,” the Toronto Globe reported on August 19, 1914. “These pictures will be picked out in colored electric bulbs, and will provide a setting both significant and picturesque.”

Once Torontonians reached the fair ground, with its usual midway games and rides, displays of new products, and live performances, they forgot about the war getting underway in Europe. “It is a time to be relieved of those things that oppress the imagination, and the Exhibition is the place where this can be done,” the Globe opined on September 2. “In spite of the spectre of hard times, money seems to be flowing freely.” The Exhibition Association recommended to city council that the “Peace Year” fair’s profits be donated to a war relief fund for families whose breadwinners were fighting overseas.

Although the 1914 Exhibition appeared reasonably care-free and unspoiled by the worries of war, the military was soon to take on a “precedence in Toronto life as never before,” as Aldona Sendzikas writes in Stanley Barracks: Toronto’s Military Legacy (Natural Heritage Books, 2011). The war’s shadow would be an inescapable presence at the Exhibition in the coming years.