Guy Fawkes Day

5 November 1889

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November.

If you ask the average Canadian, except a Newfoundlander, about Guy Fawkes Day, you would probably get a blank stare. Guy Fawkes Day, sometimes known as Bonfire Day (or Night), is not a festival recognized in most parts of the country. Newfoundland is the only Canadian province where people celebrate the day. In the United Kingdom, however, it’s still celebrated throughout the country. While it had roots in the religious turmoil of the early seventeenth century, it has become mostly a secular event, an opportunity for people to set off fireworks and have bonfires. In more elaborate affairs, an effigy of Guy Fawkes is burnt on top of the bonfire.

The celebration harkens back to the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when a group of Catholic conspirators led by Robert Catesby attempted to blow up Protestant King James I and the House of Lords in an effort to end the persecution of Catholics. The plotters intended to replace the King with his nine-year old daughter, Princess Elizabeth (named after England’s Queen Elizabeth I who died in 1603). They wanted the young princess to be raised a Catholic and marry a Catholic prince.

Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, Guy (Guido) Fawkes is third from the right, 1606 lithograph, author unknown, National Portrait Gallery, London.

As plots go, it was a ham-fisted affair. One of the conspirators told a Catholic lord to avoid the House of Lords on the day of the attack. Putting two and two together, the lord immediately went to the authorities. In the early hours of 5 November 1605, investigators found Guy (Guido) Fawkes, who had been hired by the conspirators, hiding in a cellar stuffed with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords. Fawkes, a former soldier, was to light the fuse when the King came to visit later that day. After being tortured, Fawkes revealed the names of the plotters. Catesby, the ringleader, subsequently died in a shoot-out. Eight other men, including Fawkes, were later sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for their treason. Fawkes managed to avoid that gruesome death by falling from the scaffold at his execution and breaking his neck.

One of the executed men was Henry Garnett, a Jesuit in England illegally. Garnett had reportedly heard of the plot while taking confession. After the conspirators failed in their attempt to kill the King, he tried to flee but was captured and tortured. While the authorities considered Garnett to have been involved in the Plot, this is not believed to be true today. However, the alleged involvement of the Jesuits, sometimes known as “God’s soldiers” given their militancy in the defence and the propagation of the Catholic faith, led English Protestants to condemn the order for centuries to come.

The practice of celebrating Guy Fawkes Day was brought to Canada by English settlers, and was sustained by supporters of the Grand Orange Lodge of British America founded in 1830. Pro-British Empire and anti-Catholic, Orangemen were a power in English-speaking Canada well into the twentieth century. Many prominent anglophone Canadian politicians, including Sir John A. Macdonald, were members. For Orangemen, the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day was second only to the celebration of the “Glorious Twelfth” of July, which marked the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland when Protestant William of Orange (later King William III) defeated Catholic King James II in 1690.

During the nineteenth century, the 5th of November was often marked in Ottawa by church services and the occasional bonfire in the country. But it was not a major festival.  In 1875, the Ottawa Daily Citizen reported that the old custom was dying out, except in some rural districts and for some displays of fireworks by schoolboys.

This changed in 1889. That year, Orangemen wanted to make a loud political statement opposing both the governing Conservative Party, led by Sir John A. Macdonald, as well as Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals. They were incensed that the government with the support of the Liberals had easily defeated a motion of some Orange members of Parliament to disallow the Jesuits’ Estates Act passed earlier in Quebec by the provincial government of Honoré Mercier.

The Orangemen were outraged by the Quebec government’s decision to provide compensation to the Jesuits for property seized from the Jesuits more than a hundred years earlier. The Orange Order wanted the Dominion government to overturn the provincial legislation, or at the very least challenge the constitutionality of the Act in Canada’s new Supreme Court or at the Privy Council in London, Canada’s highest court of appeal at that time.

The Dominion government did neither, thus bringing down the ire of the Orange Order in Canada.

The Orange opposition to the Quebec legislation was led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Edward O’Brien, Conservative MP for Muskoka.  In the House of Commons, O’Brien stated the Orange case. He argued that the Jesuits’ Estates Act, which endowed a religious order from public funds, violated the constitutional principle of the separation of Church and State. He also claimed that the Act recognized the right of a foreign authority, a.k.a. the Pope, to give his consent on how the Quebec government disposed of public property. Thirdly, he called the Jesuits “an alien, secret and politico-religious body…which has been expelled in every Christian community for its intolerance, and mischievous intermeddling with civil government.” He added that the Jesuits had been suppressed for good reason by the Roman Catholic Church and had been proscribed since Queen Elizabeth’s reign as “enemies to public peace.” (The Jesuits had been suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 but were revived by Pope Pius VII in 1814. The Jesuits returned to Canada in 1842.)

William Edward O’Brien, MP, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3466396.

Laurier retorted that had the Pope not suppressed the Jesuits in 1773, they would have received back their property just like the other Roman Catholic religious orders had after the British Conquest of New France. Moreover, only two out of twelve Protestant members of the Quebec legislature had voted against the Jesuits’ Estates Act. Additionally, the two members’ opposition was not over the principle of compensating the Jesuits but over the mention of the Pope in the preamble to the Act. Therefore, he asked if Quebec’s Protestants were in favour of compensating the Jesuits, how could Ontario’s Protestants object?

Sir John A. Macdonald noted that the government had some years earlier voted in favour of incorporating the Jesuit-run Collège Ste-Marie in Montreal. Since then, this institution had proven its worth: “not one complaint of its teaching, or any perversion of the youth, or disloyal doctrines.” Macdonald ridiculed O’Brien’s concerns about the Jesuits saying that O’Brien made it sound like the Jesuits were “coming in like the Huns or the Vandals over this country to sweep away civilization.” Finally, the Prime Minister said there was no grounds for disallowance and that to try to do so would initiate a huge fight with Quebec, leading potentially to “a racial and religious war.”

In the end, despite many members of the House of Commons, including the Prime Minister, being Orangemen, only 13 MPs supported the attempt to disallow the Act. These MPs later became known as the “Noble Thirteen” or the “Devil’s Dozen” depending on one’s political and religious beliefs.

Owing to the Dominion government’s refusal to disallow the provincial act, Ottawa’s Orange community assembled in their thousands on 5 November 1889 to register their protest. They threatened to unseat Orange MPs who had voted against disallowance at the next election.

That morning, Orangemen from as far afield as Brockville poured into Ottawa. A band of the Orange Young Britons assembled at the Orange Lodge on Albert Street to march through the streets of Ottawa playing Loyalist tunes such as “The Protestant Boys” and “Rise Sons of William.”

At noon, twenty-six city and area Loyalist lodges began to assemble at Cartier Square in front of thousands of spectators. As the bell in the Victoria Tower on Parliament Hill struck 1:00pm, five thousand Orangemen and affiliated Young Britons in full regalia began their parade behind the banners of their lodges to the sound of fifes and drums. The route took them along Elgin Street to Sparks, to Lyon, to Wellington, over Dufferin Bridge to Rideau Street, thence to Nicolas and finally to the Rideau skating rink on Theodore Street (today’s Laurier Avenue).

At the skating rink, the assembly began by singing “God Save the Queen,” followed by prayers. After the chairman spoke of the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, which he blamed on the Jesuits, “the root of all evil,” Lieutenant-Colonel O’Brien took the podium, speaking of his attempt to disallow the Jesuits’ Estates’ Act.  He claimed that the Act “countenanced Romish aggression and encouraged papal interference in our domestic affairs,” and that the Quebec law “gave more power to the Pope than it did the Queen.”

This provoked calls of “Shame” from the assembled Loyalist crowd.

At the end of the rally, two resolutions were carried with enthusiastic cheers. First, Orangemen of the Ottawa Valley, “assembled in the Capital of the Dominion on the fifth of November, the anniversary of the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot,” condemned the Jesuit Estates’ Act because it was “derogatory to the dignity of the Crown” and because it impaired the “equality of all religious denominations.” It also was an “invasion of the supremacy of our Gracious Queen Victoria” and was “injurious to more than three quarters of the people of the Dominion.” The second resolution supported the Manitoba government’s decision “to discontinue French as an official language and to abolish separate schools.” (This is a reference to another thorny issue at the time that divided French- and English-speaking Canadians.) The resolution also urged the Ontario government to make English the language of instruction in all public schools in the province.

After the rally, a concert was held that evening, hosted by the Loyal Order of Young Britons. This was an occasion for more Loyalist toasts and songs, including “The British Lion.”  There was also an address by John Charlton, MP, another of the “Devil’s Dozen,” as well as music played by an instrumental quartet, and recitations.

On that same November 5th day in Quebec City, the Mercier government paid the compensation due to the Jesuits. (Thus, proving God has a sense of humour, or at least irony.) For property valued between $1.2 million and $2 million, depending on who did the valuation, the Quebec government paid $400,000 to the Roman Catholic Church. In a deal with the Jesuit Fathers and other Catholic religious groups, mediated by the Pope, Quebec paid $160,000 to the Jesuits and $140,000 to Laval University. The rest went to Quebec’s Roman Catholic dioceses. To mollify Protestant opposition, a further $60,000 was paid to Quebec’s Protestants, the amount based on their population in Quebec.

Despite Orange threats to take out their ire on politicians who didn’t support the dissolution of the Quebec law, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives, the political party most closely associated with the Orange movement, returned to power in the General Election of 1891. In large part, this was due to the support of Roman Catholics in Ontario.

Guy Fawkes’ Mask

Today, the Loyal Orange Association in Canada is no longer the political and social force that it once was, owing in part to rising secularism and the post-1945 dismantlement of the British Empire. Having discarded sectarianism, the organization is now multicultural. It remains an important fraternal organization, especially in some rural communities. Its motto is “Toward God, Our Queen, Our Country and Mankind.”

Guy Fawkes and his visage have been adopted by the international anonymous movement of “hacktivists.”


Government of Canada, 1889. A Complete and Revised Edition of the debate on the Jesuits’ Estates Act in the House of Commons, March, Eusebe Senecal & Fils, Montreal.

Grand Orange Lodge of Canada, 2020.

Miller, J.R., 1974. “This saving remnant”: Macdonald and the Catholic Vote in the 1891 Election,” CCHA Study Sessions, 41(1974), 33-52.

Nicholls, Mark. 2005. “The Gunpowder Plot,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1875. ‘Guy Fawkes Day,” 5 November.

————————-, 1889.  “Today’s Celebration,” 5 November.

————————-, 1889. “The Fifth of November,” 6 November.

————————-, 1889. “The Final Scene,” 6 November.

Ottawa Journal, 1889. “The Fifth of November,” 5 November.

Sylvain, Philippe, 2014. “The Jesuits’ Estates Act,” The Canadian Encyclopedia,