Canada Day: Past & Present

Canada Flag

Get your face paint and mini-maple leaf flags ready! Canada Day is upon us and the light is finally appearing at the end of a very long pandemic tunnel. Although we’re not quite back to normal yet, this year’s Canada Day celebration will have more activities than last year. However, some of our traditional ways of celebrating Canada’s Confederation will remain altered to maintain physical distancing. Residents can fill up on pancakes at a drive-thru breakfast before heading downtown to take in the Downtown Business Council’s reverse parade. The City’s Special Events Team also has a “secret” parade route planned to take the festivities into the City neighbourhoods. The day concludes with fireworks in the evening, which can be viewed from the comfort of balconies and backyards.

But what exactly is a traditional way of celebrating Canada Day? When did those traditions come about and how did Fort Saskatchewan celebrate the nation’s birthday in the earliest days of the settlement?

Celebrating Confederation has changed slowly over the years, beginning primarily as a sport days combined with drinking and dances in the evenings. Over time, communities added parades, fireworks, face painting, folk dances, Indigenous traditions, and a variety of family activities to their festivities (don’t forget to eat a beavertail, eh).  Fort Saskatchewan’s Canada Day events have followed a similar pattern of change over time; so let’s take a look at how the Fort’s residents have rung in their nation’s birthday over the years.

Celebrating Confederation began in 1868, a year after the Province of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia merged to form the Dominion of Canada. However, the 1st of July did not become a national holiday until 1879 when Fort Saskatchewan was little more than a police fort and a few French homesteaders in Lamoureax. The diaries of North-West Mounted Police officers available to us make no mention of celebrating Confederation, either on the March West or in the early days of serving at Fort Saskatchewan.  The first references to Dominion Day and Fort Saskatchewan appear in an edition of The Edmonton Bulletin from June 3, 1882, when the Edmonton Cricket Club issued a challenge to “any eleven from Fort Saskatchewan or any other place, in friendly contest for the championship of the N.W. Territories.”

Until at least the 1890s, Edmonton held the main Dominion Day celebrations and Fort Saskatchewan hosted the Victoria Day events in the region. Settlers celebrated the two national holidays similarly, as they primarily featured sports and games. In Edmonton, Tug o’ War was the big event; but baseball, cricket, foot races, and horse races were also popular, as was imbibing copious amounts of “slush” or hop beer. Winners could take home small cash prizes, and spectators gambled away what little money they may have had or placed their bets with blankets, saddles, and even their livestock. One Fort Saskatchewan farmer took twenty head of cattle to Edmonton and lost all but one.[1] Bicycle races, Indigenous dancers, and shooting contests were added to events in the 1890s, and fireworks appeared by at least 1898.

In 1890, Fort Saskatchewan finally played host to a Dominion Day celebration. The games were held at a new racetrack that had been built near the current golf course, just below Ross Creek. Attendees came from all over the district, including Edmonton. Refreshment stands served sandwiches and the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) provided wagons for the lady spectators to seat themselves. Popular events were the usual races and team sports as well as long jump, standing and running high jumps, pole vault, and several other jumping events that would be recognizable to anyone who ever had to earn a Canada Fitness badge in their now nearly forgotten youth. The highlight of the day was a “little mite aged about six, named Maggie Coutts,” who placed first in the girls’ race to “the astonishment and amusement of all the spectators.”[2] Later Dominion Day celebrations would feature dances in the evenings, but the 1890 event concluded at 6 p.m.

While the Fort continued to hold their own Dominion Day events after 1890, deference was still given to Edmonton’s festivities by holding the local celebration a few days before the 1st of July.[3]

In 1893, The Fort’s Dominion Day, however, continued to grow in popularity, even playing host to Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Royal.

In 1894, the Fort had music supplied by the Edmonton Fire Brigade Band, a dance in the evening, and attendance of over 1000 people, more than three times the small village’s population.

After 1900, reporting on Dominion Day activities becomes rather scarce until 1967. Articles in The Edmonton Bulletin show that activities remained centered around sports and racing for much of the early twentieth century, but across the country, Dominion Day began to include patriotic rituals such as flag raisings, historical pageants, and speeches.[4] As car ownership became more common in the 1920s, family trips to local lakes and picnics at Elk Island Park became a popular way to spend the nation’s birthday.

In 1927, the biggest celebration took place in Edmonton for the Diamond Jubilee, where a “great number of Fort Saskatchewan citizens” witnessed “one of the finest parades ever organized in Western Canada.”[5]

During the Depression and World War II, local Dominion Day celebrations were sometimes used to raise money for a variety of causes and organizations.

In 1931, Fort Saskatchewan’s Dominion Day Festival took place at Lord and Lady Rodney’s Cottesmore Farm, across the river from town. Proceeds from the event went to the Alberta Girl Guides. The festival began at 1 p.m. with baseball games, exhibitions of skill, fortune telling, beauty contests, airplane rides, and pony rides for the children. Dinner was offered between 5 and 7 p.m., followed by a dance with an orchestra.

In 1942, Fort residents attended a picnic at Ardrossan with the usual baseball games and races, but also fishing ponds, bingo, guessing games, raffles, and a bazaar to raise money for the war effort.

Due to the scarcity of reporting on local Dominion Day celebrations, it’s difficult to identify when the town added fireworks and a parade to the day’s celebratory activities.[6]

In 1967, the first mention of fireworks in Fort Saskatchewan is the Centennial.[7] The Centennial celebration likely included many of the usual Dominion Day activities but added an unveiling of the town’s Centennial project, Pioneer House and Memorial Park.

In the 1970s, Dominion Day began to look more like contemporary celebrations put on by the City of Fort Saskatchewan and included a parade and a 10 km race. Canada Day became a popular alternative name for Dominion Day.

In 1982, Dominion Day officially changed its name to Canada Day.

By at least 1980, the mayoral ceremonial cake cutting appears.

In 1985, the town celebrated not only the national birthday but the achievement of attaining City status.

 Mayor Murial Adburahmen (centre) passes out cake on Canada Day 1985

Today, or at least before the pandemic, the City celebrates Canada’s Confederation with a variety of activities downtown at Legacy Park. From a parade to an open house at the Fort Heritage Precinct, Indigenous cultural performances, live music, and fireworks from the amphitheater, today’s Canada Day would look rather unfamiliar to our City’s earliest residents, like Leon Moret or Agnes Forbes. Nevertheless, I’m sure they would appreciate the conviviality and general “good feeling” shared by the City’s revelers on the nation’s birthday, and enjoy the decadence of food truck poutine washed down with a beavertail.

During our 2021 Canada Day celebrations, residents may notice some changes to our usual approach to July 1st. These changes are intended to express our support for Indigenous communities and our grief at the loss of thousands of young Indigenous lives. Find out more here: Canada Day in Fort Saskatchewan.

[1] “Edmonton’s First Dominion Day,” The Edmonton Bulletin, June 30, 1906.

[2] “Fort Saskatchewan,” The Edmonton Bulletin, July 12, 1890.

[3] The 1895 Fort Saskatchewan Dominion Day celebration was held on June 28, so as not to interfere with Edmonton’s events. The Edmonton Bulletin, June 1

[4] “Dominion Day Celebrations,” Collections Canada,, Accessed June 18, 2021.

[5] The Fort Record, July 7, 1927.

[6] Due to time constraints the author of this article could only view a sample of local newspapers for each decade, but the pattern before 1967 is fairly clear, the holiday is rarely mentioned either before the 1st of July or in the subsequent two or three editions of The Record after Dominion Day.

[7] A few residents consulted for this article have no recollection of fireworks or parades earlier than 1967 and remember Dominion Day in the 1950s being reserved for baseball and other games. 

Fortitude – The idea for Fortitude came from wanting to both educate and entertain our readers. This City blog seeks to tell noteworthy stories through a different lens than a typical news story. Expect tales about how City programs and services impact our life here in the Fort. We would love to hear your thoughts and your story ideas.

The City of Fort Saskatchewan is a vibrant economic and cultural hub located just 15 minutes northeast of Edmonton on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. Home to nearly 27,000 people, the City proudly manages state of the art recreation, culture and historic amenities including 80 km of outdoor trails, a performing arts theatre and fitness centre within the Dow Centennial Centre and the 1875 – 1885 NWMP Fort Representation in historic downtown. Fort Saskatchewan is the largest urban centre with the Alberta Industrial Heartland region.