Reflections on May 24th

Many readers will have guessed that Tantramar Flashbacks are often written well in advance of publication. When I checked the calendar and noted the projected publication date for this week, my topic was settled. Could there be a better place than Victoria, British Columbia, to reflect on the significance of this date?

Any visitor to Victoria, especially in springtime, is tempted to extol it’s natural beauty. This point was made by a recent cartoon in the Times-Colonist. It depicted a tourist gazing at a magnificent cherry tree in full bloom. Speaking to a bystander, the tourist says: I just love the blossoms in Victoria. And what is the name of that tree? The local person replies: It’s a Makus Easternfriends Jealousi.

The second temptation is to comment on the blood sport known locally as provincial politics. However, no self respecting Maritimer would dare do so. It’s true that British Columbia has had a long record of the bizarre in politics; however, a little dose of history is sufficient to quiet even the most vocal Maritimer. Not only have we had our share of political scandals; there have been some interesting links with this region.

It all began with one Will Smith (1825-1897), who was largely responsible for the British Columbia’s entry into Confederation. He became its second premier, and is better known under his assumed name, Amor de Cosmos, or lover of the universe. A provocative journalist by profession, it has to be recalled that the eccentric Premier Amor de Cosmos, was a native of Windsor, Nova Scotia.

New Brunswick has to bear some responsibility for the Wacky regime of the Bennett’s — father and son. W.A.C. Bennett, British Columbia’s Premier from 1952 until 1972, came originally from Hastings Hill, near Alma in Albert County. His son, William Bennett also served as Premier from 1975 until 1986. The Bennett’s, descendants of a prominent New England Planter family, can also claim relationship with an occasionally eccentric federal politician — Prime Minister R. B. Bennett. But enough politics for now!

Originally, this day commemorated the actual birthdate of Queen Victoria on May 24th, 1819. In recent years, the holiday has been moved to the fourth Monday of the month and is variously known as the Queen’s Birthday, Commonwealth Day or sometimes Victoria Day. In Québec it is celebrated as Fete de Dollard.

In the year 2000, the holiday might also be called Cottage Opening Day. Many readers are probably still nursing sore muscles as a result of fulfilling this task last weekend. By late May, even in the Maritimes, it’s safe to once again prime the pump, turn on the water and sweep away the cobwebs of winter. Spring we hope, is here at last, and we can look forward to another summer at the cottage.

All these changes notwithstanding, it’s worthwhile to take an historical look at a most remarkable period, the Victorian Age. Certainly we have reminders all around us. A search reveals that no other monarch is more frequently sketched on the place name canvas, not only of New Brunswick, but of Victoria’s other realms and territories around the world.

In common with Nova Scotia, and both Quebec and Ontario, New Brunswick has a Victoria County. Within the province there is a Victoria Beach (Queens); Victoria Corner (Carleton); Victoria Deadwater (Charlotte); and Victoria Lake (Charlotte). In addition, two place names once on the map, are no longer in use: Victoria Mills (York) and Victoria Settlement (Sunbury).

Then there is the revival of interest in Victorian architecture, furnishings and antiques. Look around Sackville, Dorchester, Port Elgin or Amherst and you will find examples of High Victorian style homes that have been carefully restored and painted in the dramatic colours characteristic of that day. The detailed fretwork and gingerbread with their vibrant browns, yellows, pinks and various hues of grey, stand out on any streetscape.

Many of these homes feature furniture of the same period. Their walls are papered in varied motifs, and heavily upholstered love seats and wing chairs abound. There’s even a revival in Victorian plumbing fixtures! No Victorian household would be complete without it’s herb garden and this too has caught on. Check out local nursery suppliers this spring and note their displays of perennial herbs. Try some… you’ll be glad you did. The majority are easy to grow and essential to many recipes.

While mentioning some positive aspects of Victoriana, I’m aware that many people do not appreciate the heavy and sometimes dazzling style of that era. Further, for others, Victorian achievements are overshadowed by a preoccupation with propriety, or even downright prudishness.

This covered all aspects of society from general lifestyle to literature; from social behaviour to art. One example will suffice. This was the age when parlour table legs were draped in heavy floor length cloth, so that peoples sensibilities might not be offended!

Other critics will point out that this was the so-called golden age of Imperialism. While Britannia did indeed rule the waves; it brought with it a heavy price. No one should turn a blind eye to this aspect of the Victorian period. However, let’s not judge it by the social standards of our own day. Even in 2000 there are still forms of imperialism that call for eradication.

Now back to where this all started — Victoria, BC. The local tourist authorities play up the English connection for all it is worth. From high tea at the Empress Hotel to cricket, croquet and lawn bowling; from beautifully manicured gardens to Craigdarroch and Hatley Castles. The latter two, I hasten to add, were built by the Scottish Dunsmuir family.

Perhaps the Englishness of Victoria was best exemplified by a concert given by the city’s excellent Symphony Orchestra. Under the baton of conductor Brian Jackson, a native English musician, who came to the city via London Ontario, the orchestra re-enacted The Last Night of the Proms. This program takes place every summer at Royal Albert Hall in London, England. Whenever it is held, the concert always ends with the orchestra playing and audience singing Rule Britannia and Jerusalem. I can verify that the rafters were ringing the night we attended The Proms in the Royal Theatre, Victoria BC.

While the Englishness of Victoria helped reinforce the significance of May 24th, it must be emphasized that the city has much else to offer the visitor. Capitalizing on a superb location, it’s outlook in the year 2000 and beyond, is firmly fixed, not on old England, but on the Pacific Rim.