Manitobans are quite aware that the first Monday in August is a civic holiday, but when the concept of such an annual holiday was first entertained, no set date was established, although it was generally felt the holiday should be held in either August or September. In fact, the first ever civic holiday in Manitoba was held in Winnipeg on September 16, 1874. Another unique feature that does not exist today was that it was up to the mayor at the time to issue a proclamation announcing the holiday. Provincial legislation has since made the first Monday in August civic holiday an annual event across the province, but not a statutory holiday as it is in many other provinces.
At a July 1874 city council meeting, Mayor Francis Cornish began to discuss the possibility of holding a civic holiday based on the model then used in Ontario. Civic holiday celebrations dated to the 1850s in Upper Canada (now Ontario). London, where Cornish had previously been the mayor, in 1856 celebrated the first known summer-time civic holiday in Canada. It was followed by Toronto in 1861 and Hamilton and Guelph in 1862. As was the case in Winnipeg in 1874, it was up to the mayors of the respective cities to issue the proclamation announcing the civic holiday. The actual date for the holiday also varied.
On the civic holiday, shops were closed for the day and residents took advantage of the day of leisure to go on picnics and railway and steamer excursions.
Since Cornish was from London, he was quite familiar with the concept of a summer-time civic holiday. He served as a London alderman from 1858 to 1861 and was the mayor of London from 1861 to 1864, the first Canadian-born mayor to be elected to that post. Cornish’s tenure as London mayor ended in 1864, when the council called out the militia to ensure Cornish didn’t resort to some of his old ballot-stuffing tricks. He moved to Winnipeg in 1872 and soon became embroiled in the local political scene.
Just one year after his arrival, the new City of Winnipeg had been incorporated through provincial legislation. In January 1874, he was elected the city’s first mayor under rather dubious circumstances, which brought new meaning to the term, “Vote early and vote often.” Cornish’s election was said to have resulted from numerous illegal repeat votes being cast in his favour.
Whatever the circumstances of his election, it was Cornish who pressed for the declaration of a civic holiday.
It should also be noted that this was a time when civic boosterism was embraced by the business and political elite of Winnipeg. Among the writers intent upon proclaiming the good news about Winnipeg’s potential to those beyond the boundaries of Manitoba was George Babington Elliott, a transplanted journalist from Eastern Canada. In September 1874, the Manitoba Free Press published Elliott’s pamphlet entitled, Winnipeg as It is in 1874: And as It was in 1860. His purpose in writing the multi-page report was to “supply a demand” that had not yet been filled, which was to promote Winnipeg to the rest of North America.
Prominent in his pamphlet was the real estate market and the development of city land in 1874. In fact, the majority of advertisers in the pamphlet were local real estate agents. By discussing the real estate market, Elliott was able to demonstrate the progress that was being made in Winnipeg since Manitoba entered the Canadian Confederation in 1870.
“It will, of course, be remembered that the vast and wonderful changes which have taken place in the locality known as Winnipeg have been wrought chiefly within the last three or four years,” Elliott wrote.
The only dark cloud with the potential to curb the civic enthusiasm was the presence of a plague of locusts devouring crops throughout southern Manitoba — a fact that lead some on council to argue against the celebration — but Cornish was adamant that the newly-created city would have its very own civic holiday. He had his way and council voted in favour of a civic holiday on September 16. Cornish issued the necessary proclamation on September 15.
“Winnipeg is not thoroughly up to this sort of thing yet,” reported the September 17, 1874, Manitoba Free Press, “and this attempt at a civic holiday yesterday was not a complete success, and during the day the city presented more of the appearance of some quiet Ontario town than anything else.
“There was an absence of the wonted animation upon the street, and the shops looked very much as they generally do upon the Sabbath (mandatory Sunday closing was then in effect), but carpenters continued to saw and hammer away all day.”
It is obvious that, unlike Cornish and the other transplanted Ontarians, Winnipeggers were unaware of what should be done to celebrate a civic holiday. But there was some of the holiday spirit exercised.
The newspaper reported: “The holiday really was kept at the rifle range, at the racing park, and any where out on the prairie where chickens were supposed to exist. Judging from the number of shot guns which left the city in the morning the carnage should have been much more fearful than the returning game bags, in the evening, seemed to indicate.”
What ended the enthusiasm of the few locals attempting a celebration was an afternoon rainstorm, which suspended shooting at the rifle range (then a popular sport), “the track in the park became too heavy for sport; and the shootists trudged homeward, tired, hungry, drabbled and wet.
“The streets got more and more deserted, the few people who had been at work knocked off, and night closed in upon as dismal a holiday as could well be manufactured.”
The article ended with the statement, “Better success next time.”
Next time was August 17, 1875, when the sky remained clear and bright, and Winnipeggers had good reason to celebrate, as the cornerstone was being laid for the city’s first city hall and civic market. Businesses closed for the day and people gathered by the hundreds and in a grand display of civic pride proceeded down Main Street to the music provided by the city band to the site of the new complex. According to the Free Press, “The procession was the largest seen in the North-West, and must have numbered in the neighbourhood of five hundred people.”
Newspapers reported 3,000 gathered to witness the laying of the cornerstone, an astonishing number for a “city” with a population of just 5,000.
While civic pride was then front and centre, today the annual civic holiday is more of a celebration of the waning days of summer, when the long weekend gives people an extra day to relax or the opportunity to go to the cottage or beach or take part in annual events, such as the Icelandic Festival in Gimli or Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, among others.