Welcome to the latest episode of the Great NOTL Summer Walkabout, a summer-long series of stories that will take you to all corners of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Our reporters will trek around the community to meet residents and visitors, attend events, visit area landmarks and tell stories about what they find. Today, a walkabout around Old Town on Canada Day.
What does Canada Day mean to tourists and NOTL residents?
For some, it was just another work day but filled with more fun and good energy. For many, it was a reminder of what Canada stands for: whether it is diversity or the anniversary of the Confederation. For others, it was a longtime tradition or just a way to have a good time with friends and family.
The national holiday, celebrating Canada’s 152nd birthday on July 1, kicked off at Simcoe Park at about 8 a.m. The Rotary Club of Niagara-on-the-Lake was serving a pancake breakfast followed by a barbecue lunch while visitors were entertained by The Flat Broke band and Peter Shea and Juliet Dunn of the TD Niagara Jazz Festival.
Joe Typer of the St. Davids Lions Club, who’s been helping with the Rotary barbecue for five years, said for him the celebration is about “joys of Canada, what we’ve all built Canada to be.”
Down on Queen Street, army veteran Chris Walker was waiting for his wife to join him. He said he celebrates Canada Day “militarily” by going to Fort George and watching salutes and drills. Canada Day to him is about Confederation.
A bit farther down the main street, in front of the Shaw Café and Wine Bar, Gisela Depkat was playing the cello.
“I’m trying to change that whole image that busking is begging,” she told The Lake Report, explaining how she has won several international awards and her solo album was nominated for a Juno Award. “So, they can’t argue it’s riff-raff coming into town.”
Depkat, who plays in three orchestras, said her parents immigrated to Canada from Germany. Having settled in Thunder Bay, her father started working as a bricklayer and almost died the first summer because he wasn’t used to physical labour. Depkat said she’s done a lot of thinking about the refugee situation in Europe.
“You never really lose your identity to your home country, to your native country,” she said.
Sitting on the bench beside Depkat and listening to her music was a couple from Washington, D.C. It was the first time Gregory and Kristina Blevins visited Canada. They were attending a relative’s wedding in Erie, Penn., and a visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake was recommended.
“It’s a beautiful town,” said Gregory. “It’s very quaint … very peaceful. And the music is not bad, too!”
The giant Canada Day cake – featuring Snow White, seven dwarves, a bread rack with the bakery’s name on it and a cake with a “Happy Birthday Canada” sign was paraded through the Old Town starting at around 3 p.m.
Catherine O’Donnell from Willow Cakes and Pastries and her team of Niagara College apprentices spent up to 400 hours creating the mammoth cake, which weighed over 1,000 pounds.
Spectators cheered and clapped as the cake was passed by.
Led by the 41st Regiment Fife and Drum Corps, the birthday cake was escorted to Simcoe Park where it was sliced and served by town councillors, Niagara Falls MP Rob Nicholson, Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates as well as student volunteers.
It is a family tradition for John Marano, who was celebrating with his daughter and two grandsons, to come to Simcoe Park every year on Canada Day. Marano remembered how he used to come with his daughter Elyse Wood when she was little and would put her on his shoulders so she would be able to get a piece of the birthday cake. Now, Wood has her own children whom she brings to celebrate the holiday.
The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 124 on King Street also celebrated the day. Having a barbecue lunch with some cold drinks, people were enjoying live music by The Rockets. One of those in attendance, Mike Barrett, said his best Canada Day memory is from Expo 67 in Montreal.
“I was born a long time ago but I was around in ‘67 when we celebrated 100 years. That was also the last time the Leafs won the Cup so that’s how Canadian I am,” he told The Lake Report.
Robert Packard, a legion executive member, also remembered Expo but for him and his wife Barbara Cole, Canada Day also means a two-year anniversary. Back in 2017, the couple spent a whole day working together at Fort George and by the end of the day, they got to know each other better and “that was a beginning,” said Cole, adding Canada day is pretty special for them.
As NOTL used to be Upper Canada’s first capital, the national holiday is also important for the town, said Brian Crocker, another legion executive member.
“My grandfather was a veteran of the First World War, lived in Niagara, was a postmaster in Niagara-on-the-Lake, so I do this for him as a memory for him,” he said.
The celebrations continued at Fort George later Monday evening.
Moustapha Chein, who came to Canada from Mauritania three months ago, was at the fort with his wife and friends. He said he is proud to be a Canadian.
“Canada Day to me is the proudest day. People usually talk about the American dream. Let me tell about the Canadian dream,” he said. “I’m so proud to be here.”
Following a presentation by the Fort George Artillery and Fife and Drum Corps, The Howling Horns took the stage at the fort with fireworks concluding the long day full of celebrations in Old Town.