By George Siamandas


It should have been 1870, but because Manitoba had entered confederation late that year, Manitoba didn't celebrate Confederation Day at all. They celebrated something else. The first celebrations were actually held on July 4 1870, they were hosted by American citizens residing in Winnipeg, and, they had all the flavour of Independence Day. The day's events included an artillery salute. Louis Riel who still occupied Fort Garry that summer loaned them a canon for the day. "Dutch" George Emmerling's hotel had laid on a feast, and the American flag flew from the hotel's flagstaff at Portage and Main.

It was not until 1871 that the first Confederation Day was celebrated in the west and Manitoba. Posters put up around town announced that the "town of Winnipeg," (Winnipeg did not become a city till 1873), would celebrate with horse racing, foot races, standing jumps, sack and blindfold races, and climbing the greasy pole. And July 1, 1871 went off just as planned. The big guns of Fort Garry woke everyone up at sunrise with a Royal Salute. By noon the area in front of Fort Garry was standing room only. Cricket and football matches went on during the day, as military band music played in the background. And firemen from Fort Garry led a torchlight parade. The week following, the fire chief had to write a letter to the editor of the Manitoban newspaper clarifying that only one instead of several members of the fire department had been involved in the burning of an effigy that night.


For the first eight years it was a voluntary holiday. It was not until 1879 that it was made a legal holiday and called Dominion Day. In 1875 the celebrations were organized by the City of Winnipeg fire department which itself had just been born. The guns of Fort Garry would sound early in the morning. This was followed by a fireman's picnic followed by games and horse racing at 1:00 pm. In the evening the firemen held a repeat performance followed by Roman candles. There were also exclusive river-boat rides down to lower Fort Garry.

In 1887 it was the St. Andrews Society that organized that year's events: sports, fireworks, river-boat excursions. These very British celebrations continued even after a lot of European immigration had occurred. In rural areas Dominion Day celebrations often included a lot of sports. They were held in virtually every town or district in the province.

At first the events would be held at Fort Garry the area behind the Manitoba Club. In the 1890s two new Winnipeg parks serviced by the street railway provided Winnipeggers with new recreational opportunities: River Park and Elm Park.

In 1907, 8,000 people took the CPR train to Winnipeg beach. And for decades to come it was the railways that would organize people's excursions to holiday recreation on Dominion Day. After 1920 Assiniboine Park became an increasingly popular destination for the public.

Then as now most people saw Dominion Day as a day off from work rather than a day of special significance. But there has always been a patriotic theme to the day. During the wars patriotic themes were emphasized. In 1915 three quarters of Winnipeg is described as having come out to watch the "spectacular parade". Citizens in the thousands packed the city's Industrial Exposition building, and 5,000 children assembled at a city school and then marched to the Exhibition grounds.

After 1967, the federal government began to spend in the millions for Canada Day events. In 1982 the name was changed to Canada Day. And always there have been fireworks to cap the day's events. As early as the first year, "Roman Candles" brought the day's events to a close.


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