How the Prince Albert legion pioneered Canada Day

Matt Gardner
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Hundreds of Prince Albert residents congregated at Kinsmen Park on Tuesday to celebrate the 147th birthday of their home and native land.

For 46 years, the local Royal Canadian Legion branch has organized Canada Day celebrations in the park -- organizing afternoon events this year while the Prince Albert Multicultural Council handled the evening.

Less well-known than the legion’s organizational role, however, is the pioneering role that local members had on Canada Day celebrations across the country.

“I always felt it was the Prince Albert legion branch that started Canada Day -- my feelings,” legion member and Second World War veteran Ed Laird said with a chuckle.

As a member of the organizing committee for the first Canada Day celebration in the park, Laird was better placed than most to note the critical role played by local legion members.

Prior to the inaugural park festivities in 1968, Laird noted, there were no organized activities to celebrate Canada Day (then called Dominion Day).

“We had Dominion Day holiday and there were no events,” Laird recalled. “There was nothing going on. It was just a day off work, that’s all. There were no … things for kids or anything like that.”

The spark that created Prince Albert’s Canada Day tradition came from legion members Jim Turner -- former owner of Turner’s Grocery on River Street -- and Harry Mullins.

Frustrated at the lack of events to celebrate Dominion Day, Turner approached Laird, who as service officer for the local legion branch was responsible for procuring entertainment each year for Remembrance Day ceremonies.

He asked Laird whether the legion might give permission to hold a Dominion Day event in Bryant Park (the original name of Kinsmen Park) -- and also whether it would be willing to donate $2,000 to cover the cost of organizing the event, which would include live entertainment, races, prizes, facepainting, ball games for children and free ice cream.

The answer to both questions, it turned out, was a firm yes.

To help reduce costs, the legion members found entertainers who would perform for free.

“Of course we had no stage then,” Laird said. “We usually set tables up (and) would stand on these tables.”

The role of emcee, meanwhile, remained unfilled.

“I was no good at a mike, so I got Claude Adams,” Laird said. “He was always my microphone guy … He liked doing that, so he took over that part.”

A fellow legion member and multi-talented musician, Adams was a natural for the role, and the July 1 park festivities blossomed into an annual tradition.

“The third year we did it, we no longer needed any money from the legion,” Laird said. “We were making enough off of hotdogs and stuff. We could do it without any help.”

“But funny thing -- the women raised a fuss because their kids were getting free ice cream, and they didn’t like that,” he added with a grin. “Kids were getting sick and they were wasting it … eating half of it and throwing them away and stuff like that, not eating the cone.

We had Dominion Day holiday and there were no events. There was nothing going on. It was just a day off work. Ed Laird

“We had to start charging them 10 cents, so they had to go to their mom to get some money so she knew when they’d had enough.”

The success of the Prince Albert park celebrations began to create a veritable buzz in the nation’s capital.

That same year, P.A. legion members began receiving calls from Ottawa inquiring about the activities they had been organizing for Dominion Day.

In late September, they received a call informing them that a man was travelling across Canada and asking whether they could send a representative of the committee “that was putting on these fun days we were doing for Dominion Day” to meet the man in Moose Jaw.

“Claude was our guy we sent down,” Laird said. “He came back (and) he said, ‘Hey, they were just amazed. They wanted that program. They couldn’t believe that it was all so well done.’”

Subsequently, Prince Albert’s park celebrations would create a new tradition for the legion.

“About March next year, every legion across Canada got a letter from command in Ottawa, saying that any legion that would put on an event like this would get a $1,000 grant to do it,” Laird said.

Since then, legion branches across the country have helped organize similar Canada Day celebrations each year.

The pioneering role of the Prince Albert legion members is often overlooked.

“They’ll say it was the government that did this,” Laird said. “But nobody’s ever convinced me that it wasn’t our idea.”

In the decades since, he noted, local Canada Day celebrations have changed quite a bit.

One of the main differences is the fact that entertainers often expect to be paid rather than performing for free.

Another is the sheer number of competing events.

“Now everybody’s so busy,” Laird said. “It used to be there was nothing going on. Now there’s something going on all over, and they drive to Waskesiu and stuff like that.”

The role of the legion in organizing festivities, however, has remained a constant.

In official remarks made on behalf of the city at Tuesday’s celebrations, Coun. Don Cody commended legion members for their role in organizing Canada Day events at the park.

“Congratulations for the good work that you’re doing to put on this great event, and we say happy 147th Canada Day.”

Click HERE and HERE for slideshows featuring more pictures from this year's Canada Day celebrations in Prince Albert.

Organizations: Daily Herald

Geographic location: Kinsmen Park

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