28 January 1922
Back in 1922, Ottawa hosted a week-long winter festival that easily surpassed any that came before or since. Called the Canadian National Winter Carnival, its slogan was “A Week Without Worry,” a motto that Ottawa citizens and thousands of visitors took to heart. In a time before television and radio, the extravaganza was all the more appreciated, just the ticket to dispel the mid-winter blues. The preparation and organization of the events started months in advance, and involved the city, civic organizations, such as the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, as well as church groups, stores, and ordinary citizens. There was even an official Carnival song, written and composed by Mr Cecil Birkett. To an “Indian swing,” the chorus of the tune went: “Ottawa, Canada, Up, where the hills are great and steep, Up, where the snow is good and deep, Ottawa Canada, Up, to the north, where the air is pure and healthy.”
With the city made resplendent with colourful bunting and flags, the carnival officially began at 12.30pm on 28 January 1922 when the Governor General, Lord Byng, and his wife opened the “Slide-a-Mile” toboggan chute located between the Château Laurier Hotel and the Rideau Canal locks. For a dime, toboggan enthusiasts could take a thrilling rollercoaster ride out over the Ottawa River at speeds approaching 100 kilometres an hour on the specially constructed ice slide. Exhilarated riders eventually stopped midway across the river close to the Carnival Tea Room, a restaurant built on the ice that could accommodate more than 100 people. There, they could warm up with tea, toast, hot dogs, and soft drinks before making the long trek back to the Château. One thing that partyers couldn’t buy was booze. Prohibition was in full swing in Ontario; liquor could only be legally obtained with a doctor’s prescription, though doubtlessly more than a few flasks of bootleg booze were consumed.
After the opening of the toboggan run, the vice-regal party was escorted by members of the Gaiete and A.J. Freiman snowshoe clubs to Cartier Square, the main venue for outdoor events. Many of the snowshoers wore traditional French-Canadian winter costumes, complete with toques, fur coats, and sashes. Also in attendance was a Mohawk band in full regalia led by Chief Martin Two Axe from the Caughnawaga Reserve. At the Cartier Square Ice Palace, Ottawa’s Mayor Plant and other members of city council greeted the Governor General, and extended an official welcome to all visitors to the Capital. The Ice Palace was a sixty-five foot high, fairyland castle, complete with ramparts and crenellated towers, made entirely out of ice.
Other events that first day included snowshoe competitions, where participants from across Canada vied for gold, silver and bronze medals. At 7pm, there was a torchlight parade to the Ice Palace which was illuminated by multi-coloured lights; fireworks lit up the skies. This was followed by hockey games at the nearby Rideau Rink, amateur boxing and wrestling at the Drill Hall, and dancing at St Patrick’s Hall. Events held at Cartier Square were free to all, while a small admission fee was charged for the others.
That first day set the pattern for the rest of the week. There was something for everybody. The “Slide-a-Mile” toboggan ride ran constantly day and night. Carnival goers were wowed by daring stunts performed on the slide. George Labelle of the Cliffsides Ski Club descended on one ski, while holding his other leg extended behind him. Each afternoon, large crowds flocked to the rink at Cartier Square to witness varsity, junior, and ladies’ teams play hockey. There was also skiing, curling, and dog races. Every night, snowshoers, marching bands, and soldiers paraded to the Ice Palace, where a searchlight played over the revellers, with dancing to follow at St Patrick’s Hall. On one evening, the Mohawk band held a pow wow at the Drill Hall, treating the crowds to traditional dances, songs, and rope tricks. Lt. W.H. Currie, the chairman of the Carnival parade committee, was made an honorary chief and given the name “Raneriene,” which signified leader. At the ceremony, Chief Two Axe spoke of the friendship shown to him and his companions.
Some events were most unusual. On the first weekend, the YMCA organized a “Balaclava Melee” at the Drill Hall. Popularized by British regiments during the late nineteenth century, this was not a game for the fainthearted. It consisted of two teams on horseback trying to knock feather plumes out of the headgear of their opponents using singlesticks, or cudgels. The melee was followed by a contest of quarterstaves demonstrated by two soldiers. Even more bizarre, a baseball game on skates was attempted, as was a hockey game between two teams riding hobby horses strapped to their waists. The hobby horse teams were a source of considerable merriment both on and off the ice. The Great War Veterans’ Association also put on a minstrel show.
One of the highlights of the Carnival was an NHL hockey game between the hometown Senators and arch-rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. The Sens topped the Habs 4-2 in an infamous game where notorious Montreal brawler Sprague Cleghorn, dubbed the “disgrace of the NHL,” sent off four Ottawa players with serious injuries; three had to sit out the next two games. Despite their wounds, the Ottawa Senators went on that year to become the Stanley Cup champions.
Through the Carnival week, people bought tickets and voted for their choice to be the Carnival Queen from a slate of Ottawa beauties, with the victor to be presented at a gala ball at the Château Laurier Hotel. For the event, the hotel ballroom was decorated with multi-coloured balloons and streamers in a “Mardi Gras” style. After thousands of ballots were counted, Miss Theresa McCadden emerged the winner. Mayor Plant introduced the brown-eyed, brunette beauty at the ball, her entry heralded by a fanfare of bugles. Escorted by a detachment of boy scouts, she wore a simple black gown with sequin trimmings; her bodice was embroidered with flowers. The Mayor crowned Miss McCadden with a laurel wreath, and gave her a bouquet of roses and a fur scarf before presenting her to her “subjects.” The Ottawa Journal reported that Miss McCadden fulfilled her role “with an easy grace” that charmed everybody.
Gala participants swayed through the night to the sound of two orchestras. But at 10.30pm, in keeping with the Carnival spirit, there was a snowball fight; dancers pelted each other with white feather “snowballs.” A buffet supper followed at 11.30pm in the hotel dining room. Tables were decorated with potted plants and arrangements of spring flowers.
The climax of the Canadian National Winter Carnival took place on the last night, Saturday 3 February. After another day of sporting events, virtually all of Ottawa made their way to Cartier Square to greet the Carnival Queen, and to participate in the “storming” her palace. By 8pm, people had jammed the Square and the surrounding streets. According to the police, it was the largest crowd in Ottawa’s history. For a time, the press of people was a cause for concern as children and seniors were swept along by the crowd, or were squashed against the walls of the Ice Palace. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.
At about 8.30pm, “Her Royal Highness” Miss McCadden emerged from the Ice Palace on a fur-draped sleigh, accompanied by the Mohawk band in full regalia. Wearing a white turban, she gracefully acknowledged the cheers of the crowd as her sleigh made its way through an honour guard of boy scouts and snowshoers. The Gaiete Snowshoe Club band played music as the parade wound its way through the city before returning to Cartier Square.
The Carnival Queen’s return marked the beginning of the “storming” of her palace. Starting with a few sky rockets, the fireworks display grew in magnitude above the crowds. Flares and multi-coloured lights, which changed from white, to red, and then to green, lit up the Ice Palace. At times, its ramparts were blazing as if on fire. The grand finale came when hundreds of sky rockets were shot from every window and tower. Fifty “bombs” burst a thousand feet in the air, showering the crowds with rainbow-hued sparks. The light show was accompanied with the thunder of guns as if the castle was truly under attack. After the “storming,” the partying began in earnest at the Drill Hall where men and women dressed in wild costumes danced the night away amidst swirls of confetti.
The next morning the city congratulated itself on a job well done. There was hopes that the Carnival had encouraged people to get out and enjoy winter sports, and that Ottawa could have a Winter Carnival every year. Sadly, that was not to be. It wasn’t until 1979 before Winterlude, or Bal de Neige, became an annual fixture on Ottawa’s social calendar.
The Ottawa Citizen, 1922. “Great Winter Carnival Certain To Flood The City With Visitors,” 18 January.
———————–, 1922. “Thrilling Stunt By Ski Artist On Carnival Slide, 1 February.
———————–, 1922. “Senators Again Trim Canucks By 4-2 In Gruelling Game At Arena: Cleghorn Is Reported,” 2 February.
The Ottawa Journal, 1922. “Winter Carnival Gets Underway at Noon Today,” 28 January.
————————, 1922. “Ottawas And Canadiens To Provide Main Carnival Hockey Attraction,” 31 January.
————————, 1922. “Cartier Square A Gay Spectacle Of Happy Carnival Celebrators For Brilliant Night Programme, 2 February.
————————, 1922. “Many Attractions For Carnival Crowd,” 2 February.
————————, 1922. “Winter Carnival Queen Crowned At Enjoyable Ball In Chateau,” 4 February.
———————–, 1922. “Largest Crown in City History Enjoys Carnival,” 4 February.
———————–, 1922. “The Carnival,” 4 February.
UrbSite, 2013. “Winter Follies: The Ottawa Winter Carnival, 1922,
Images: Slide-a-Mile, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2013/01/winter-follies-ottawa-winter-carnival.html.