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The 150th Dominion Day in Simcoe County

​​Blog originally posted ​June 22, 2017

Simcoe County was not as removed from the events of 1867 as one might suppose. In 1843, at the age of 27, Sir James Robert Gowan was appointed as the first judge for the newly created Simcoe District. Gowan became good friends with many influential politicians throughout Upper Canada and was instrumental in drawing up legislation before and after the British North America Act was put into place. One good friend was Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first Prime Minister. In the Simcoe County Archives' Sir James R. Gowan collection there is a good deal of correspondence between the two men, but where Confederation is concerned this letter is of particular interest to Canadian history enthusiasts (note the location and the date): 

Enlarge Macdonald Letter Copyright: Public domain.

Copyright: Public domain.

Here is a transcription of the letter:

Westminster Palace Hotel

London, Feb. 13/1867

My Dear Gowan 

I owe you many apologies for not writing you long ere this, but I may as well tell you the whole truth about the fate of your letter. At the time of its arrival, I was sitting as Chairman of the delegates from morning till night, and finding it literally impossible to keep up any correspondence, I carefully set aside all letters but those requiring immediate attention in a drawer with heaps of papers. There they laid comfortably stowed away, until I exhumed them this morning. Fancy my dismay at finding so many letters laid aside as "unconsidered trifles." However it is never too late [mind], and so I will address myself to your letter. And first as to your Junior. I think you can make out a fair case for a junior judge and wish you to prepare a memorial on the subject stating all the facts, in the same manner as you have done in your letter. The subject cannot be dealt with until my return to Canada in March or April. I shall at once bring it before Council when I arrive at Ottawa with a reasonable hope of carrying it to a successful issue. Meanwhile I need scarcely warn you of the necessity of the strictest silence on the matter until it becomes a fait accompli.

Lord Caernarvon introduced the Confederation Act yesterday Feb 12th within H of Lords, Sub silentio.  It will be read a second time on Tuesday next. And we have no doubt of a successful termination to our mission. The only cloud lowering over us is the dread that the Ministry may fall on the question of Reform. All the indications however are that they will weather the storm and carry this thru session successfully.  Even if it were not so, the only consequence would be delay. Vexatious certainly, but not all fatal to the [… ]

The only question discussed here just now is Reform. My impression is that the wealthy respectable & educated people of all classes. The aristocracy. The middle classes and the artisans are alike opposed as indifferent to change, but there will be a change for fear of the [dangerous] classes. It will be a moderate one however and probably quiet matters for the next twenty years.

Now I am going to give you a bit of news that will surprise you. Not that I am going to be married, for that is in the newspapers, but as to the lady, my cara sposa is to be Miss Bernard your old friend and we are to be married by the Bishop of Montreal on Saturday next. I had intended to have it come off just before sailing, but as the time is very uncertain, we thought it more convenient to come off now.  So you see I turn over a new leaf & become stupid & respectable.

Always my dear Gowan,

Sincerely yours

John A. Macdonald

This is the day after the Act had been introduced to the House of Lords! Here we see laid out Sir John A. Macdonald's opinions on things both personal and political. We also see how intertwined the two men are and how close the circles are that they run in. In 1883, at the age of 67, Macdonald appointed Gowan to the Senate. As the Canadian Dictionary of Biography says "in his 40 years on the bench and his 22 years in the Senate, Gowan exercised more influence over legislation and the lives of Canadians than most elected politicians."

  Enlarge 'Northern Advance' 7 Feb. 1867

Northern Advance, February 7, 1867
Copyright: Public domain.

This year we are celebrating our 150th Dominion Day in Simcoe County, marking the anniversary of the British North America Act which established the Dominion of Canada. If Dominion Day doesn't sound familiar to you, it is because it was changed to Canada Day in 1982. There is no shortage of festivities happening all across the County and many people will be heading outdoors to celebrate this coming July 1st. This is not so different to the first Dominion Day celebrated in the County of Simcoe. 

                                   Enlarge Northern Advance 7 Feb. 1867

Northern Advance, February 7, 1867
CopyrightPublic domain.

In Barrie several Volunteer Companies assembled in the Market Square around 11:00 am. At noon the Reeve, William D. Ardagh, read the Queen's proclamation establishing the new Dominion, which was then followed by a gun salute and three cheers. At 2:00 pm citizens played Quoits (a horseshoes like game) behind the School Home and then gathered at the Railway Station grounds to watch the walking of the greasy pole, extended out over the water. Contestants had to climb out and grab a flag off the end. Then came the scull race between three boats and then finally the sack race. To cap off the day, in the evening the Mendelssohn Glee Club gave a concert at Town Hall.  

                               Enlarge 'Northern Advance' 27 June 1867.

Northern Advance, June 27, 1867
Copyright: Public domain.

In 1867 Thomas Ferguson, of Innisfil Township, was the Warden of Simcoe County. In January of that year he gave an address to the council. The Northern Advance newspaper, available on microfilm at the Simcoe County Archives, produced this summary which was then recorded in the printed edition of the Council Minutes.

                 Enlarge Jan. 1867 County of Simcoe Council Minutes

Copyright: Public domain.

                 Enlarge Jan. 1867 County of Simcoe Council Minutes

Copyright: Public domain.

                 Enlarge Jan. 1867 County of Simcoe Council Minutes

Copyright: Public domain.

This is a great overview of local concerns in the year 1867. One of the major concerns is having drill sheds constructed for the use of volunteers, so that they could run drills and practice (a regular feature in the Northern Advance of 1867 was a discussion of the Fenian Raids and the dangers of the Fenians). The people of Simcoe County were also concerned about the fate of the Holland Marsh, hoping to resolve to whom the land should belong. Their concern with this was tied to their interests in the completion of the Georgian Bay Canal connecting Lake Huron with Montreal, which never came to fruition.

Directly after Confederation there was an election to see who would represent Simcoe County in the House of Commons. W.C. Little was elected for the riding of South Simcoe, which the Northern Advance was very pleased about, and Thomas McConkey was elected for North Simcoe, about which the Northern Advance had a lot to say, labelling their article "The Result, and what has led to it." 

                  Enlarge 981-38, Orillia, on Lake Couchiching, Canada West - drawn from nature in August A.D. 1852

981-38, Orillia, on Lake Couchiching, Canada West - drawn from nature in August A.D. 1852
Copyright: Public domain.

Around 1867 we start to see a few aspects of the Simcoe County we now recognize. For one, Orillia is also celebrating its 150th this year. Orillia was incorporated as a village on the 22nd of November, 1866, so celebrations of this milestone range from November 2016 – November 2017. At the Simcoe County Archives, these watercolours by Captain W.H. Grubbe are the oldest of our depictions of Lake Couchiching and Orillia. 

                 Enlarge: 981-38, Lake Couchiching, Canada - drawn from nature in September A.D. 1854.

981-38, Lake Couchiching, Canada - drawn from nature in September A.D. 1854.
Copyright: Public domain.

For its first Dominion Day, Orillia also celebrated with a parade of the Volunteer Company, followed by drills. They also fired their guns, sang "God Save the Queen" and gave three cheers. Then there was a shooting match and Mr. Ross of "Orillia House" entertained the company with supper and speeches.

Your celebrations this year might look a little different, but come out and celebrate this year with Canada and with Simcoe County.

For further reading:

"Barrie Canada Day." Barrie. City of Barrie, 2017,                                                             http://www.barrie.ca/Culture/Festivals/Pages/CanadaDay.aspx. Accessed June 20, 2017.

Brown, Desmond H. "GOWAN, Sir JAMES ROBERT." Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto/Université, 2003, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gowan_james_robert_13E.html.                       Accessed June 20, 2017.

 Hillman, Thomas A. A Statutory Chronology of Ontario Counties and Municipalities. Gananoque: Langdale Press, 1988.

Orillia Canada Day. Orillia ProNet Inc., 2017, http://orilliacanadaday.ca/. Accessed June 20, 2017. 


Images on this page marked as public domain are free to re-use. If you do re-use public domain images, please credit the Simcoe County Archives as the source and link back to this page.


June 29, 2020.  ​Links to the City of Barrie and City of Orillia Canada Day websites are current to the 2020 commemorations.