1867: The First Canada Day welcomes Confederation


Reading the Proclamation of Canada’s Confederation, Kingston, Ontario, July 1, 1868. Queen’s University Archives.

As midnight broke on July 1, 1867, there was neither peace nor quiet across the land, on the first day of Canada’s Confederation. From Halifax to Windsor, guns boomed, bells chimed, rifles, pistols, and muskets were fired, bonfires were lit, as millions of Canadians poured out into the streets of towns and villages to celebrate the birth of their new country. Scant hours later, there were parades, military reviews, speeches, picnics, cricket and lacrosse matches, special railway and steamship excursions. In Toronto, a fat ox was roasted for the benefit of the poor, but in Nova Scotia an effigy of one of the Fathers of Confederation was burned together with a live rat.

The enthusiastic rejoicing on that first Canada Day when Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Canada East and Canada West were officially forged into a new nation was not universally shared. For some in the two Maritime provinces there was bitter resentment at perceived loss of independence —and for some politicians, a loss of power and privileges.

In Canada East, there were mixed feelings. Unionists saw Confederation as a bulwark against the threat of American annexation and the obliteration of French language, culture, customs, and institutions. Others feared that the British North America Act, the new constitution for the new country, gave too much power to the federal government, and not enough for Quebec to protect its interests.

From that first Confederation conference at Charlottetown in 1864, it had taken almost three years to put Canada together, and at times the whole idea was in danger of collapsing. The vision of a new nation from sea to sea to sea was far from complete. Prince Edward Island had opted out, and would stay out for another seven years. Newfoundland, too, had rejected Canada, and would not join for another 82 years. Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, and British Columbia were still to join the four million people of Canada.


Less than two months before Dominion Day, the British Colonist and the Acadian Recorder had somewhat differing accounts of a Halifax meeting called to nominate candidates for the impending new Parliament.

The April 30 meeting “broke up in the wildest uproar and confusion,” the anti-union Acadian Recorder reported the next day. The names of candidates were said to have been “called out amid great hissing,” while “disgust and distrust seemed to be the leading elements which animated the breasts of the audience. ‘Traitor’ was called out in every quarter of the Hall.” Confederation advocate Dr. Charles Tupper was said to have received “the loudest demonstration of disapproval,” but when the name of anti-Confederation leader Joseph Howe was mentioned, “a large majority of the audience arose and gave three hearty cheers for the Nova Scotia patriot.”

A pack of “low and disgusting falsehoods” and “unblushing lies” was how the British Colonist described the Acadian report. Temperance Hall, said the union paper, was filled to capacity and hundreds had to be turned away. The “few obstructive” anti-unionists, in this report, “were silenced by the enthusiastic demonstrations of the mass of the friends of Union, whose rapturous plaudits cheered on the able and eloquent speakers.” As for Dr. Tupper, far from being greeted with demonstrations of disapproval, he “was received with the wildest demonstrations of applause, and listened to with the most rapt attention.” Other anti-unionists were accused of even worse, of “downright lying” and “odious, cowardly, unspeakable manners.”


On Dominion Day itself, July 1, 1867, there was cheering across the continent, mixed with a few loud raspberries.

In Toronto, the Leader reported, “The New Dominion was hailed last night as the clock struck twelve by Mr. Rawlinson ringing a merry peel on the joy bells of St. James Cathedral… The bells had scarcely commenced when the firing of small arms was heard in every direction, so that both music and gunpowder were brought into requisition to usher in the great event. Large bonfires were lighted on various parts of the city… Large crowds also paraded the streets with fifes and drums, cheering in the heartiest manner.”

Great events were scheduled to start at the crack of dawn. All the troops in the city were to parade to the review grounds where they were to be “supplied with ale at the expense of Mr. Gzowski [Sir Casimir, former superintendent of public works]. In the evening there were to be military bands, fireworks and Chinese lanterns at Queen’s Park; “a picnic and festival” on the government grounds, while “A fat ox will be roasted and given away to the poor… by Capt. Woodhouse, of the schooner Lord Nelson.” An event held at the city’s Crystal Palace was characterized by the Leader as “a loathing band of so-called mothers exhibiting their offspring for prizes —a horrid and disgusting exhibition.”

In Peterborough, on the northern flank of Ontario settlement, midnight bell ringing “was a cause of alarm” to many citizens, according to the Examiner. “But very soon they found their fears were groundless; the cause was nothing more than introducing our citizens to Confederation.”

In Ottawa, thousands gathered as a match was struck at midnight to ignite a huge bonfire, all the city bells rang out, rockets flared, and 100 guns of the Ottawa field battery boomed, the Citizen reported on July 4. There must have been little sleep for the players and spectators of four lacrosse games that started at 7 a.m. At the new Parliament Buildings, spectators and an honour guard awaited the arrival of the cabinet headed by John A. Macdonald, a gaggle of dignitaries, and Charles Monck, for his installation as Canada’s first Governor General.

Confederation, predicted the Ottawa Times that day, will solve “a great problem” with which “the whole world is intimately concerned —whether British constitutional principles are to take root and flourish on the Western Hemisphere, or unbridled Democracy shall have a whole continent on which to erect the despotism of the mob. The issue is one of national existence combined with the enjoyment of national liberty, against the universal rule of an unrestrained Democracy.”

In Quebec, the Journal des Trois Rivieres viewed the bells and guns as a proud announcement that “we have taken our place among the nations of the earth.”

Montreal greeted July 1 at 4 a.m. when the guns of the Montreal Field Battery “boomed forth a royal salute,” followed two hours later by more salutes from the guns at St. Helen’s Island. The Gazette called it “the greatest day in the history of the North American province since Jacques Cartier landed at Stadacona.”

Far away from the new Dominion, at the tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria’s Daily Colonist greeted July 1 as a “memorable day for British North America.” Its publisher, Amor de Cosmos, was apparently breaking with his long-time mentor Joseph Howe. Canada, de Cosmos predicted, will “play an important part in the world’s history,” guided by “a ministry composed of the best and greatest minds on the continent.” Confederation had “given the deathblow to Annexation.” All that remained to make the country complete was the construction of a railway to the Pacific coast and the admission of B.C. into confederation “as rapidly as possible.”


In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, there were a few muted cheers and some loud sobbing.

In Halifax, the British Colonist greeted the day with a rambling headline: “DOMINION DAY. UNIVERSAL REJOICING. Gorgeous Decorations. Enthusiastic Celebration of the Inauguration of the Dominion of Canada. Grand Display of Fireworks. Illumination, Bon Fires, &c. NAVAL AND MILITARY REVIEW.

The Morning Chronicle published this obituary:


“Last night, at twelve o’clock, the free and enlightened Province of Nova Scotia. Deceased was the offspring of Old English stock, and promised to have proved an honour and support to her parents in their declining years. Her death was occasioned by unnatural treatment received at the hands of some of her ungrateful sons, who, taking advantage of the position she afforded them, betrayed her to the enemy. Funeral will take place from the Grande Parade this day, Monday, at 9 o’clock. Friends are requested not to attend, as her enemies, with becoming scorn, intend to insult the occasion with rejoicing.”

In Saint John, “There was nothing uproarious about the demonstrations” that marked July 1, the Morning News reported. “Everything was conducted in an orderly and becoming spirit, gratifying to the friends of the Union and at the same time not calculated to create an undue feeling of unpleasantness in the minds of those who have opposed the measure from a conviction of its unsuitability for our people.”

According to Timothy Anglin’s Morning Freeman, some of those politicians who had sought union for their own aggrandizement were rewarded, and some were disappointed. While Confederation Fathers James Mitchell and Leonard Tilley got cabinet posts “with salaries and pickings worth $8,000 to $10,000 per year,” “poor Dr. Tupper had to relinquish all idea of taking immediate possession of the seat in the cabinet of the new Dominion which was the prize he so coveted that he sold his country for the chance of winning it.”

Elsewhere in Nova Scotia, July 1 was “by no means a day of rejoicing,” in the view of the Yarmouth Herald. “There was a burlesque celebration in the morning,” but numerous flags were reportedly flown at half-mast. “In several localities, men wore black weeds on their hats,” while at Milton, an effigy of Tupper “was suspended by the neck all afternoon” and in the evening “burnt side by side with a live rat.”

— Canada @ 150 —




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *