Canadian vacations have changed drastically

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

The Labour Day weekend is viewed, by most people, to mark the end of the summer.

Few now consider their summer to be complete without at least one vacation trip. The present extensive scale of summer travel has developed over the past five or six decades.

The automobile, of course, has had much to do with this, but the idea of a holiday from work, taken routinely each year, is also relatively new.

Few employers in the mid-19th century offered their workers a fixed holiday period. At this time, the workweek was still six days, and summer holidays consisted of Victoria Day, Dominion Day and the Civic Holiday.

It is not surprising that these days had special significance, marked by special events and activities. Working people looked forward to the one-day excursions at greatly reduced fares offered by the railways.

Although the modern notion of a holiday period, two or three weeks off work with pay, did not exist, most workers did not put in a full 52 weeks on the job. Layoffs were common, and often seasonal in particular in industries. Over the long term, working men probably averaged about 10 months of work per year.

Locally, with many industries relying on waterpower, a dry spell in the summer could bring about a forced vacation period (as could a severe freeze-up in winter). All this time off was unpaid; there was no unemployment insurance or holiday-with-pay law in the 19th century.

Service industries are not subject to the same employment fluctuations as other businesses, and it was in this sector that the modern notion of the vacation emerged. The first big employers in Canada were the railways. They were joined, by the turn of the century, by the chartered banks.

The railways were unionized in the late 19th century, and paid vacations were one of many benefits earned through collective bargaining. Operating employees on railways (those actually operating the trains) could accept as many or as few trips as they wanted. They were paid by the mile, subject to a set of complicated rules. Employee passes permitted railway workers to travel on leisure trips.

Bank employees followed a different course. Although large at the time, they were, in modern terms, relatively small organizations. The Bank of Commerce, for example, had only 350 employees in 1895; at the time it was the second-largest bank in Canada.

Banks did not unionize, but followed a pseudo-military organizational structure. The employees were “officers,” who spoke of being “in the service.” The concept of “annual leave” for bank employees was well established by 1900, having become firmly entrenched during the 1890s with other benefits such as pensions.

Led by the railways and the banks, other employers began to offer their employees (and themselves) vacations each summer during the 1890s. Many people were anxious to spend this time away from the heat and pollution of towns and cities.

Hunting and fishing became popular diversions, and it was through the efforts of anglers and hunters that the first large parks were established. Algonquin Park, the first of these in Canada, was established in 1893.

After the creation of Algonquin Park, the Muskoka area became the favoured vacation spot for southern Ontario residents, and tourist promoters began to offer a wide range of facilities, from hunter’s cabins to luxury hotels. The Muskoka Navigation Company operated a line of steamships through the Muskoka lakes, linking tourist facilities with the outside world.

The railways were quick to exploit the emerging vacation market. The line of the Canada Atlantic Railway, later taken over by the Grand Trunk, ran through Algonquin Park. The Canadian Pacific promoted the Muskoka tourist business after it built its line from Bolton to Sudbury, connecting with the Muskoka steamships at Bala.

The Grand Trunk Railway had the best connections to Muskoka, and did much to establish the region as a tourist destination. Its stations displayed posters and advertisements for Muskoka, and its promotional efforts extended into the United States. Even residents of picturesque Elora could not resist the lure of Muskoka. The social column of the Elora Express contains many reports of local people taking a Muskoka holiday.

Canadian National Railways (successor to Grand Trunk) pushed Muskoka aggressively during the 1920s. The railway ran three summer-only trains each way daily between Toronto and Parry Sound. There was daily sleeping-car service from Toronto to Algonquin Park, and weekend sleeping-car service direct from Detroit and New York.

With such frequent service, Muskoka was readily accessible to southern Ontario residents before the widespread ownership of automobiles.

A few weeks ago, Don Stafford showed me some maps and brochures of Muskoka dating from the First World War. They show better than anything the mixture of roughing-it-in-the-bush and luxury that made Muskoka universally popular 100 years ago.

One map of the CPR system is marked with the fishing and hunting prospects in each area: trout, bass, water fowl, deer, moose, and others. This brochure is 16 pages, with a full-colour cover and coloured maps, and contains many photographs and notes on canoeing, hunting, fishing, and other Muskoka attractions. The notes advise that the railway will allow 150 pounds of camping equipment free on each ticket.

Detailed maps from Canadian Pacific and the Grand Trunk show the extent of the steamship services in Muskoka and the various camps and lodges on the shores, most inaccessible except by boat.

The Grand Trunk Railway, and its successor, Canadian National, played up Muskoka to boost its passenger revenue. Canadian National at one point operated three hotels in Algonquin Park in the 1920s. The rates of $5 per day were beyond the reach of most people. This was the luxury end of the market. Those with more modest resources stayed at cheaper hotels and lodges, rented cabins, or outfitted themselves with a canoe and tent.

The old-style Muskoka vacation, planned for months and undertaken by railway with nothing less than a couple of steamer trunks (or a crate of camping equipment for those who preferred something more rustic) is long a thing of the past, but it serves as a reminder that our ideas of the ideal vacation can change dramatically over a few decades.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Sept. 7, 1993.

Thorning Revisited