01 July 2010

Gerry Boyce's Canada Day Address

From the band shell at Zwick's Park in Belleville, local historian, longstanding Hastings County Historical Society member and author Gerry Boyce the honourary Chair of Belleville’s Canada Day organising committee gently reminded those present of some of Belleville's Canada day history. Photo's Nick White

Today we are celebrating the anniversary of an important event in Canadian history: Confederation — the uniting of four British colonies to form the Dominion of Canada.

It would be an even more important event for us today had Belleville become the capital of Canada.

In earlier years, the politicians in the United Province of Canada (as Ontario and Quebec were known from 1841 to 1867) were trying to agree on a permanent capital. From 1841 to 1859, there were 218 votes in parliament relating to this matter and several cities were considered — notably Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa (known as Bytown until 1855), Kingston, Toronto, and even Cornwall.

Belleville residents submitted a petition suggesting Belleville as a logical choice as it had 6,000 residents an expanding industry (including bustling lumber mills and foundries), it was a major railway centre and a cultural centre (Albert College).

Unfortunately, the petition was not submitted through proper channels and was not considered.

 Local members of parliament then supported Kingston’s bid, but Ottawa was selected (largely as a result of the Canadian Governor General Sir Edmund Head’s opinion that Ottawa was "the least objectionable place."

On the eve of Confederation in l867, local attention was more focused on the possible attack by Fenians — Irish Americans who hoped to capture Canada and exchange it for Ireland’s independence. Armed Irish- Americans openly drilled in several American cities and the American governments seemed reluctant to stop the Fenian activities.

In 1865 the First Hastings Rifles and the 15th Battalion of the Argyll Light Infantry were called out to defend the country. For five months, local militia stood on guard at Amherstburg.

In 1867, Belleville was preparing to welcome a detachment of British regulars. Town Council decided that it would move to the second storey of the engine house (now Bren’s Bake Shop) from its second story location over the old market building on the market square) so that the local troops might move into the former council chambers and the British regulars could move into the l5th’s armouries on Church Street.

With such excitement locally, council paid little attention to the approach of Confederation. However, a week before July 1st, council set aside $250 to provide the citizens of the area "with the largest amount of amusement and entertainment on that day."

July 1st celebrations began at midnight with the firing of the cannon on the Court House Hill. At 9:00 a.m. the Moira Company Band played on the courthouse steps, followed by a parade from the armouries to the courthouse. Mayor Henry Corby read the proclamation creating the Dominion of Canada. A military volley followed and the band of the 15th Battalion played God Save the Queen.

The Intelligencer reporter noted that "the remainder of the day passed off very quietly, there being no display of fireworks in the evening." The next day, the Intelligencer lamented that "The birthday of our new Dominion was not celebrated in Belleville with the spirit which should have been shown on the occasion."

Hats off to the organizers and the citizens of Belleville and area for this much improved celebration of Confederation!

Happy Birthday Canada

Incidentally, can you imagine what royal visitor would have been on stage with us this afternoon to help celebrate . . . if Belleville (rather than Ottawa) had been selected as Canada’s capital?