In 1866, soldiers fought and died to protect Canada. It took decades to finally honour them. Decoration Day began as a way to honour those who fought the Fenians at the Battle of Ridgeway

Before moving to this area I’d never heard of Decoration Day, which is held the first weekend in June. Members of the Royal Canadian Legion visit the graves of veterans and mark each one with a Canadian flag. It’s a solemn and respectful thing to do. 

Growing up in Thunder Bay, with parents who were heavily involved in their Legion branch, I knew all about standing out in the cold in November to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. But I’d never heard of Decoration Day, or how it got started.

I asked a few local Legion members, who take part every year, and they didn’t seem to know either. Everything I now know and will talk about at the Colchester Branch in Harrow before we head out to the cemeteries on the afternoon of Sunday, June 4, I learned on the internet. 

It’s a great story that has to do with the oldest free-standing monument in Toronto, and an organized act of protest, undertaken by a most unlikely group of protestors.

The Canadian Volunteer Memorial is at Queen’s Park Crescent on the property of the University of Toronto. It was built in 1870 and paid for by private subscription to commemorate militiamen from Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles, who fought and died in the Battle of Ridgeway.

Never heard of it? The Battle of Ridgeway was the first fought by Canadian troops, led by Canadian officers, to defend Canadian soil. 

On June 1, 1866, more than a year before Confederation, a heavily armed group of Civil War veterans (from both sides) invaded from the United States, seizing the town of Fort Erie and threatening to destroy the Welland Canal. 

The Canadian General Service Medal honoured veterans of the 1866 and 1870 Fenian Raids and the 1870 Red River Rebellion.

These Irish American Fenians had a scheme to end British rule in Ireland by taking Canada hostage. They were intercepted the next morning near the village of Ridgeway, not far from Fort Erie, by a combined force from the Queen’s Own Rifles and the 13th Battalion of Hamilton (now known as the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry).

The first casualty, Ensign Malcolm McEachern, was killed in the early minutes of the battle on June 2. Nine riflemen from the Queen’s Own Rifles were killed in the battle. Twenty-two more Canadians would die of either wounds or disease sustained during what came to be known as the Fenian Raids.  

The Fenians won the battle but eventually withdrew back across the border.

Except for miniscule payments to those severely wounded in the battle, or to the widows and orphans of those killed, the veterans received no acknowledgement of their service in the defence of Canada.  

As Canadian-American relations warmed, commemoration of a battle defending against an invasion from the U.S. became unpolitic, inconvenient and impolite.  The more than eight hundred veterans who fought at Ridgeway were forgotten and ignored.

In May 1890 the Veterans of ’66 Association decided to meet in protest on the 24th anniversary of the battle to lay flowers and wreaths at the Volunteer Memorial.  

This first Decoration Day was followed in 1895 by a national petition for recognition of all the volunteers who served during the Fenian Raids. In January 1899, in response to the petition, Britain authorized a Canadian General Service Medal for veterans of the 1866 and 1870 Fenian Raids and the 1870 Red River Rebellion. 

The medal was issued just in time for the call on Canada to fight in the Boer War in South Africa. More than 7,000 Canadians volunteered to serve alongside the British.

Darrow Woods serves as chaplain of Royal Canadian Legion Colchester Branch 338 in Harrow and is pastor of Harrow United Church. He lives in Kingsville.

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