The history and meaning of most holidays is usually self-evident, but the same is far from true for the August long weekend, which most people think is a day off for the heck of it. In fact, the civic holiday has an interesting, if somewhat vague, lineage that some writers trace back to Aug. 1, 1834, when Great Britain outlawed slavery.
The holiday is marked this weekend in most parts of Canada, but it's celebrated under a variety of names. In Toronto, it is officially known as Simcoe Day, after John Graves Simcoe, the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada who passed a law in 1793 that led to the abolition of slavery in Canada. Most Ontario cities and towns name the holiday after a person or event of local importance.
In Manitoba, there have been a few feeble suggestions for a name change. In 2004, for example, during the civic byelection that elected Mayor Sam Katz, one candidate proposed renaming the holiday Winnipeg Day, which is about as exciting as a bologna sandwich.
Finally, however, the province has come up with the name of a Canadian hero who has a special connection to Manitoba, Terry Fox.
While Fox is primarily known for his cross-Canada run to raise funds for cancer research, his courageous Marathon of Hope became a symbol of the struggle against adversity.
At the risk of stretching the metaphor too far, his dauntless pursuit of an elusive goal is a reflection of the spirit of those who settled this province when the odds of success were slim. Like Fox, Manitoba's pioneers believed in miracles because they had to.
The renaming of the civic holiday would also seem to answer a question posed by the editors of the Free Press, who advocated for a civic holiday in 1874, the same year the City of Winnipeg was incorporated.
"This is another of those days which would make a passable civic holiday," the editors opined on a hot summer day.
The city relented and declared that Sept. 16, 1874, would be a holiday, apparently modelled after a similar celebration introduced five years earlier in Toronto.
"Now that we are to have that civic holiday, what are we to do with it?" the Free Press asked, presumably hoping to make it meaningful.
The holiday was duly held, but the newspaper still wasn't happy. Maybe it was a slow news day.
"Winnipeg is not thoroughly up to this sort of thing," the editors said the next day, complaining, "The day presented more of the appearance of some quiet Ontario town than anything else."
Apparently, it was pretty boring and, "The shops looked very much as they generally do upon the Sabbath."
"Better success next time," the paper said.
If they could see us now.
This weekend, Manitobans will enjoy a smorgasbord of cultural events, including Folklorama, the Icelandic festival in Gimli, Ukrainian celebrations in Dauphin and so on. These events celebrate Manitoba's pioneering spirit and the people who built the province.
The Caribbean parade and festival that used to occur this weekend was cancelled a few years ago, which is unfortunate since it traced its historical roots to the British emancipation, which is celebrated across the British West Indies this weekend under a variety of titles, including Emancipation Day, August Monday, August Festival, among others.
In Manitoba, starting next year, the holiday will be known as Terry Fox Day. Hopefully, it will keep alive the spirit of struggle that ended so tragically on a highway near Thunder Bay, Ont., in 1980, when the sickness returned and he was forced to abandon his run for a cure.
Meanwhile, 140 years after the Free Press demanded the holiday serve as a symbol for something important, its request has finally been recognized.