The year of 1891 in Canada would be a momentous one, with several important events. So, let’s get right down to it.
On Jan. 4, Antoine Labelle would pass away in Quebec City at the age of 57. Often called The King of the North for his push to settle the area of northern Quebec, he was ordained as a priest on June 1, 1856 and would serve as a vicar for several parishes within Quebec, including at Saint Jerome. He would pursue getting a railway line built along the Riviere du Nord to encourage the economic development of the area, while also pushing for social activism. He supported the Canadian Pacific Railway and when the Montreal to Saint Jerome Railway line was inaugurated in 1876, one of the engines bore his name. Today, a statue of Labelle was erected in front of the Saint Jerome cathedral and several places including a town, county, electoral district, two streets, a wildlife reserve and a school are named for him.
On Jan. 6, Tim Buck is born in England. He would come to Canada in 1910 and become involved in the labour movement. In 1921, he would participate in the founding convention of the Communist Party of Canada. A supporter of Joseph Stalin, he would be convicted of sedition after his offices were raided. Sentenced to hard labour at the Kingston Penitentiary from 1932 to 1934, he was the target of an apparent assassination attempt. He would serve as the General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1929 to 1962 and would run for a seat in the House of Commons six times. In 1935, when he ran in Winnipeg, he finished third with 25 per cent of the vote. In 1945, in Toronto, he would pick up 26 per cent of the vote. He would pass away in 1973.
On Jan. 21, Calixa Lavallee would pass away in Boston. Born in Canada in 1842, he would begin playing the piano and was performing in concerts by the age of 13. He would eventually serve in the American Civil War and return to Montreal in 1863 to perform concerts there for two years. He would move around the continent until he settled again in Montreal in the 1870s. It was in 1880 he was commissioned to compose O’ Canada, which would be the unofficial anthem of the country for a century until it was made the official national anthem in 1980 after a vote in the Senate and House of Commons.
On Jan. 26, Wilder Graves Penfield would be born in Spokane Washington. After spending time as a doctor in the United States, he would move to Montreal in 1928, remaining in Canada for the rest of his life. He would invent the Montreal Procedure, which involved treating severe epilepsy in patients by destroying nerve cells in the brain where the seizures originated. His scientific contributions on neural stimulation would expand across many topics including hallucinations, illusions, déjà vu and more. He would pass away in Montreal in 1976. In 1988 he was named a National Historic Person, while a postage stamp honouring him would follow in 1991. Several buildings are named for him, and in 2018 a Google Doodle was created on the 127th anniversary of his birth. While his name may not be well-known among most Canadians, nearly any Canadian from the 1990s will remember “I smell burnt toast!” which comes from a Heritage Minute about Penfield.
On Feb. 21, the Springhill Mining Disaster would occur. The explosion in the mine would occur at 12:30 p.m. in the Number 1 and Number 2 mine shafts, which were connected by a tunnel 400 metres under the surface. The fire was caused by accumulated coal dust that swept through both shafts, killing 125 miners, many only 10 to 13-years-old, while injuring dozens more. The disaster was on a scale never seen in the mining industry in Canada to that point and relief funds came in from across the country and British Empire, with Queen Victoria even sending money. An inquiry was held and it was determined that the gas detectors were in working order but the source of the explosion was never found. Sadly, this would not be the only explosion at this mine. Another would occur in 1956, killing 39 and injuring 88. In 1958, another disaster would kill 75 miners.
On March 5, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives won their fourth consecutive majority, with the Conservatives taking 117 seats, five less than the previous election. Meanwhile, Wilfrid Laurier and his Liberals gained 10 seats and finished with 90.
On April 1, Harry Nixon was born in Ontario. He would be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 1919 as a candidate with the United Farmers of Ontario and would eventually serve as a cabinet minister and become a leader of the Liberals in 1943 and the premier of Ontario. He would serve from May 18, 1943 to Aug. 17, 1943 when his government lost the election. He would remain in the Legislature until 1961 when he passed away.
On April 27, Frederick Peters would become the premier of Prince Edward Island, replacing Neil McLeod. Peters was asked to form a government after the Conservatives lost a motion of confidence in the house. Peters would serve as premier until 1897.
The country would lose its prime minister on June 6 when Sir John A. Macdonald passed away in office, becoming the first prime minister to die in office. He had suffered a stroke a few days previous and was mentally alert until his death. The death would send the Conservative party in turmoil as Macdonald had led the party since the formation of Canada in 1867, through scandals, election defeats and several majorities. On June 8, he would lie in state in the Senate Chamber and thousands would file past his casket. His body would be transported to his hometown of Kingston with crowds greeting the train at each stop. In Kingston, Macdonald would lay in state in city hall wearing the uniform of an Imperial Privy Counselor. Wilfrid Laurier would say in the House of Commons following the death of Macdonald: “In fact the place of Sir John A. Macdonald in this country was so large and so absorbing that it is almost impossible to conceive that the politics of this country, the fate of this country, will continue without him. His loss overwhelms us.” Many statues of Macdonald would be erected and while he played a key role in the formation of Canada, the view of his historic legacy is changing due to his role in the Chinese Head Tax, his actions during the North-West Rebellion that resulted in the execution of Louis Riel and eight Indigenous chiefs, and his policies to Indigenous people in general. Due to his treatment of Indigenous people, there have been calls to remove his statues in various cities across Canada.
On June 16, Sir John Abbott would become the new prime minister of Canada and this would begin a time when Canada would see four prime ministers over the course of only five years. John Abbott would become the first Canadian-born prime minister of Canada and the first to hold a seat in the Senate, not the House of Commons. After becoming prime minister, Canada would be plunged into an economic recession, while the McGreevy-Langevin scandal would erupt. Abbott would retire as prime minister on Nov. 24, 1892 due to ill health and would pass away one year later.
On Sept. 16, Julie Winnifred Bertrand was born in Quebec. She would end up living for 115 years and 124 days, making her the oldest living Canadian for a time and the oldest verified living recognized woman at the time of her death in 2007. Only three people have been verified to live longer than her in Canadian history.
On Sept. 29, Thomas McGreevy would be expelled from the House of Commons due to corruption. He had defrauded the government with Hector-Louis Langevin and was sentenced to one year in prison. He would be released in 1894 and re-elected to Parliament the following year.
On Oct. 30, Ada Mackenzie was born in Toronto. She would attend Havergal College from 1903 to 1911 and became interested golf and various other sports. In 1924, she created the Ladies Golf Club of Toronto and in 1930 she would open a women’s sportswear store as she felt women’s golf apparel was not appropriate. On the golf course, she found plenty of success, winning the Canadian Women’s Amateur in 1919, the first of five times, and she would medal at the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1927. In 1933, she was named the top Canadian female athlete of the year. In 1955, she was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, and into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1971. Her last golf tournament win would come in 1969 at the Ontario Senior Women’s Amateur and she would pass away on Jan. 25, 1973. IN 2000, she was inducted into the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
Without a doubt, the most important birth was that of Frederick Banting on Nov. 14 in Alliston, Ontario. Banting, along with Charles Best, would discover insulin and Banting would be awarded the Nobel Prize for the accomplishment and become one of the few Canadians to be knighted after 1919 for the discovery. Rather than keep the patent, he sold it for one dollar to ensure it could be used by the world. I did a very long and in-depth episode about Frederick Banting in March that goes through his entire life, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here but it is safe to say that Banting is one of the most important Canadians to ever live. He is a member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, several buildings and schools are named for him, and in 2004 he finished fourth in the ranking of the Greatest Canadian, behind only Tommy Douglas, Terry Fox and Pierre Trudeau.
On Dec. 10, the Calgary and Edmonton Railway would open, allowing Edmonton to be connected to the national railway network for the first time. Construction had started in April of 1890 and the railway would help in the development of communities along the way including Red Deer and Wetaskiwin. The rail line still exists but passenger service ended in 1985.
Also on Dec. 10, Harold Alexander was born in London. A soldier who would serve in both the First and Second World Wars, he would be appointed as governor general of Canada in 1946 on the recommendation of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. He was the last non-Canadian born governor general until Adrienne Clarkson in 1999, and was the last governor general to be a peer. He would serve until 1952 and would pass away in 1969.
On Dec. 21, Sir Charles-Eugene de Boucherville would become premier of Quebec again, replacing Honore Mercier. He replaced Mercier who had decided to take an appointment as a judge. Boucherville would serve until December 1892 when he resigned after Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau was appointed Lt. Governor. Boucherville would die in 1915, the oldest legislator in Canada, at the age of 93.