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.
July 1 is now the patriotic holiday in a country that has never been loud or strident in proclaiming its patriotism.
But for the first 30 or so years after Confederation, the significance of the day rarely was noticed – it was merely a summer holiday.
The first Dominion Day, in 1867, was marked by large celebrations, parades and fireworks in some of the major towns and cities, but in other places the day went uncelebrated. Some stores remained open, and many factories operated, and would continue to do so until the 1880s. Elora, on July 1, 1867 avoided both the extremes. Most places of business were closed, a few people went on picnics, and the Elora Rifle Company scheduled a shooting competition with their counterparts from Peel township.
In truth, the country was uncertain about how to celebrate the day in 1867. Many citizens doubted strongly that there were any advantages to the new union of the provinces, and a greater number exhibited no interest whatever in Confederation and constitutional discussions. Nothing basic had changed in the government of the country from the perspective of small-town Ontario. The government still sat at Ottawa, run by the same group of men as before Confederation. The day-to-day operation of the various government departments was not yet organized on a federal basis: the Dominion post-office did not begin until 1868, and the finance department did not be- come fully operational until 1871.
As well, the British North America Act, which came into force on July 1, 1867, was only the latest in a series of Canadian constitutional documents: the Quebec Act of 1774, the Constitutional Act of 1791, the Act of Union of 1841. None of these others had ever received special notice, but rather, were regarded as part of the evolution of Canadian government within the British system.
By 1867, Canada already had a patriotic holiday. Victoria Day had begun modestly as a celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday in the 1840s, but by the 1860s it had acquired a distinct flavour in Canada, celebrating the stability and inherent justice of the British system in marked contrast to the various excesses of the republic to the south.
The first Dominion Day, in Elora and most other towns, set a precedent that continued to be observed for decades: picnics, sports matches, and excursions; a day for relaxation and fun. Even in the 1860s, Canadian patriotism consisted in large part of anti-Americanism, a characteristic it has retained ever since. There seems to have been a deliberate effort from the beginning to make Dominion Day as different from its American counterpart, July 4, as possible. Americans stood for hours to listen to blustering Fourth of July orations; Canadians shunned such performances, and organizers of Dominion Day events frequently advertised that no speeches were on the program.
Celebration – Looking north from Metcalfe Street, Elora, towards Geddes Street, shortly before Dominion Day, cica 1935; cars line streets; Rexall Drug Store sign on building at right; Bank of Montreal at Colborne Street Intersection at centre; cenotaph and Elora Post Office at left; banner above street reads, “Welcome July 1.” Wellington County Museum and Archives ph 44478
During the 1870s, Dominion Day became generally accepted as a national holiday, observed through recreational activities, rather than loud, patriotic demonstrations. In most years, Elora attracted a large crowd from the townships to watch baseball, football, and lacrosse games, to cheer on their favourites in horse races (and bicycle races in the 1890s), and to listen to concerts.
An interesting performance took place in Elora on the Dominion Day of 1876, centred on an indiginous theme. In the afternoon, the Six Nations offered a thinly-disguised re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand, which had taken place only five days before, and which was the major newspaper story in the last week of June. The performance was followed by a lacrosse game with an Elora team. In the evening the action moved to the Drill Shed, where the Six Nations performed a variety of dances and ceremonies from a variety of tribal traditions.
In some years Elora was quiet because few people remained in town for Dominion Day. The railway would put on a special train, and a large portion of the village would buy cheap tickets for a trip to Hamilton, Niagara Falls, or Port Elgin. In other years, trainloads of visitors would come to Elora for the day, exploring the gorge and the village, and eating a picnic lunch. Some years, more than 2,000 visitors would come to the village. It was the start of tourism industry in Elora.
Dominion Day took on a more blatantly patriotic tone in 1897. The year marked a double anniversary: the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign and the 30th anniversary of Confederation. Canadians used the day to mark the growth of Canada as a country within British constitutional traditions. Flags and bunting appeared in abundance in 1897; they had seldom been used before. The maple leaf was in the process of becoming Canada’s national symbol.
It was a period of optimism in Canada. Public figures called for Canada to take over leadership of the British Empire: England was old and declining, they argued, and compared Canada to the strong son who was ready to take over the family farm.
Pictures of Queen Victoria festooned with maple leaves appeared in 1897, and similar images continued to be produced in the following years, up to the first world war.
The celebrations of 1897, commemorating the 30th anniversary of Confederation and the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign, bolstered a feeling of patriotism and optimistic nationalism that persisted until the start of the first world war in 1914. During this period, Dominion Day supplanted Victoria Day as the most important national holiday.
The war changed the direction of nationalism completely. The grim realities of the war and a steady flow of news from the quagmire battlefields of France combined to redirect patriotic feelings into war-bond campaigns and Patriotic League activities.
No one was in the mood for Dominion Day celebrations. The federal government had been making plans for a large celebration for the 50th anniversary of Confederation in 1917, but the program was virtually eliminated when the war persisted into that year.
Dominion Day fell into decline in the post-war period, and was not observed by any special events in Elora in the early 1920s. In 1927, for the 60th anniversary of Confederation, the federal government revived some of the activities originally planned for 1917.
The country had a new symbol – the peace tower of the new parliament buildings in Ottawa. The original buildings had burned in 1916. The celebrations of 1927 revived some of the flavour of prewar Dominion Days, promoting a feeling of prosperity and optimism for Canada’s future.
Elora joined enthusiastically in the 1927 celebrations. Flags and bunting appeared on stores, houses, and utility poles. A major parade marched up the main street; the afternoon featured a baseball game, and the day concluded with a street dance.
In the years after 1927, Dominion Day enjoyed a sporadic history in Elora. During the 1930s, Fergus usually held events on Victoria Day, and Elora on Dominion Day, but this arrangement was never agreed on formally.
Elora’s Dominion Day celebrations reached their peak in the late 1940s and 1950s, under the sponsorship of the Lions club, which was by far the most active service club in the village in those years. The Lions really roared in 1951, with the first of a series of Dominion Day Jamborees.
Signs and decorations went up on the main street — including totem poles and other Indian themes, similar to those used occasionally on Dominion Days in the 19th century. Local artist Russ Plyley was responsible for much of the work. The morning featured bicycle and soap-box races on Geddes and Metcalfe Streets.
The 1951 Dominion Day went into top gear in the afternoon, with a parade led by the RCAF band from Trenton. Local industries and business competed for the award for the best float. The prize was captured by the Mundell Furniture Co., with a re-creation of an 1890s streetcar. The other Elora factories also had entries, including a calliope by the Elora Furniture Co.
Chuck Sturrock’s “Dream Home,” and the square dancers on the Drimmie float also attracted much favourable comment.
Member of parliament Henry Hosking and other dignitaries offered a few remarks at Irvine park in the afternoon, but, in keeping with Dominion-Day tradition, the speeches were very short, and the crowd went back to the various games, entertainment offerings, an air show, and hotdogs and ice cream. The day concluded with a street dance, with music by the CKNX Ranch Boys, at the time a very popular group playing regularly on the Wingham radio station.
The 1951 Dominion Day established a tradition for the 1950s, but, in the early 1960s, the day again went into eclipse. Interest revived in the middle of the decade, as the centennial of 1867 approached. Elora’s centennial committee began work early in 1967, planning events through the year, as well as for July 1.
Dominion Day 1967 was preceded on June 18 by a “bury the hatchet” ceremony with Fergus, when elected officials of Elora and Fergus initiated a new era of cooperation between the communities by burying a hatchet on the grounds of Wellington Place. Many attended the ceremonies and other events in period costume.
Dominion Day itself, on July 1, 1967, followed many of the traditions that had been built up locally over the preceding century. The day started with a parade, and, later in the day, residents and visitors had their choice of a horse show, white-water canoe races in the Grand River, and a junior-B lacrosse game with Rexdale (Elora won, 18-3). Following tradition, the day concluded with a street dance.
Organizers of 1992’s events, celebrating 125 years of Confederation, were drawn on many of our local Dominion Day traditions: a time for relaxation, friends and families, and a little fun. As in the past, it was a day for people, not politicians. Flags and bunting reminded of the meaning of the day, which, with Canada’s understated brand of nationalism, is often too easy to forget.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on June 23 and 30, 1992.