Take May Day out of the schools and into the community

In New Westminster we have a May Day celebration that’s currently being put on by the school district. Elementary school children perform dances in Queen’s Park and a Royal Suite, made up of a boy and girl from each elementary school, is selected.

Back in November 2015 the New Westminster Board of Education directed that a task force be formed to examine the district’s participation in the annual May Day celebration. The report from that task force is now out, and here are some quotes taken from a survey done of district staff. Remember, the school district handles the event, and most of the planning and implementation falls on teachers, principals, and other district staff members, so they’re intimately familiar with what it takes to produce the May Day celebrations and how much effort it takes.

“…a generalized unhappiness and concern over the cost, the educational time lost in preparation for the event, the amount of preparation work involved in addition to an already challenging workload and the current relevance the existing May Day program has in 21st century learning…”

“…too much time diverted from teaching and learning. Too much energy and time reinforcing colonial traditions instead of embracing a more inclusive world view…”

“…easier to continue with the event to avoid conflict rather than re-evaluate our purpose behind it.”

“…the community can continue the event and the public can choose to take part.”

“Make it fun, not forced.”

“I think the May Day is an event that was designed for one cultural group only. It does not look at first contact, the role of immigrants in the formation of BC, the contributions of women, the development of political parties, the creation of infrastructure, the creation of Indian reservations, residential schools, etc.”

“It does not fit with our redesigned curriculum, it does not fit with our multicultural focus and our First Nations lens.”

“I feel that the redesigned curriculum promotes engagement with all histories of BC, and I’ve been confused for a long time as to why New Westminster teachers have their autonomy restricted when it comes to our professional judgement to teach BC history when May Day is NOT in the curriculum specifically.”

“[May Day] reinforces a patriarchal, settler‐dominated and exclusive culture that does not reflect the values of the District’s mission or vision.”

“…the whole Royal Suite election process has been a popularity contest that has caused social problems and conflicts within the grade 5s. It is divisive and unhelpful. It is particularly divisive in a dual track school.”

“…as long as I have been in the district I can’t remember a child with a visible disability being a May Day rep.”

“Many people have little understanding of what happens to make this event happen. It is not ‘just one day.’ All staff and students are affected by this event.”

“…students lose hours of instructional time…”

“…students are negatively affected as teachers have to arrange their placement during dance instruction.”

“…an increasing number of families now choose to keep their grade 5 students home on May Day because they feel it is very repetitive after going to May Day in grades 2, 3, and 4, which shows that the event doesn’t have full parent support…”

“It’s an exercise in crowd control; it’s a ridiculous use of teacher and student classroom instructional time, and I feel very strongly that we would better otherwise engage students in a school learning environment working on creative academics, or interest‐focused end‐of-year projects.”

Is the New Westminster school system the right place for May Day celebrations? The report and survey strongly suggest that no, it isn’t. 72% of the respondents stated that May Day was no longer an important annual event for the school district. 65% felt it doesn’t promote critical engagement with the province’s history. 72% felt the Royal Suite does not align with the school district’s values of inclusion and diversity. And 84% felt it was not a good use of district staff time and resources — estimated at $50,000 — to organize and stage the May Day ceremony.

77% did feel that the May Day ceremony should be exclusively run by the community. And this is how I feel as well. When the Royal Lancers dance was cancelled by the city, the community stepped up to do it themselves. There is nothing to suggest that the same couldn’t happen with the May Day ceremony. Perhaps it could be rolled in with the popular Ancient and Honourable Hyack Anvil Battery Salute held on Victoria Day to honour Queen Victoria?

So yes, let’s get the May Day celebration out of the hands of the school district and into the hands of a community organization such as the Hyack Festival Society or the organizers of the May Day picnic.

I’ll leave with this one last quote from the report:

“I agree it is time for change so let’s work together to make it effective such as connecting more to our community and history in New Westminster.”

How New Westminster lost the capital

By his Excellency James Douglas, Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of British Columbia, Vice-Admiral of the same, &c.

Whereas Her Majesty the Queen has been graciously pleased to decide that the Capital of British Columbia shall be styled the city of New Westminster.
Now, therefore, I, James Douglas, do hereby declare and proclaim that the town heretofore called and known as Queensborough, and sometimes as Queenborough, in the Colony of British Columbia, shall from henceforth be called and known as New Westminster, and shall be so described in all legal processes and official documents.
Issued under the Public Seal of the said Colony, at Victoria, Vancouver’s Island, this Twentieth day of July 1859, in the Twenty-third year of Her Magesty’s Reign.

James Douglas. (L.S.)

By command of his Excellency,
William A. G. Young,
Acting Colonial Secretary.

God Save the Queen!

With that proclamation New Westminster was the capital city of the Colony of British Columbia.

At least, for a few years. In the mid-1860s, the Colony of Vancouver Island was deeply in debt to the Bank of British Columbia. On May 31, 1866, the Bank refused any further loans to the Colony. The Assembly passed a vote of non-confidence in its Governor, James Douglas.

Before that, the Colony of Vancouver Island’s Assembly was toying with the idea of a federation with the Colony of British Columbia, where the two would be separate but equal partners. As the economic depression got worse, they dropped this idea in favour of a legislative union. Amor de Cosmos, in January 1865, introduced resolutions that called for the immediate and unconditional union of Vancouver Island with British Columbia, even going so far as to resigning his seat and standing for re-election as a test of the public support. He and Victoria representative Leonard McClure (who also resigned his seat) won handily, and a union was a certainty.

At the same time, Frederick Seymour, Governor of the Colony of British Columbia was happy with this outcome. “We shall be in a position to dictate our own terms,” he wrote. In a despatch to Edward Cardwell, Colonial Secretary, Seymour argued that British Columbia was prosperous (it actually wasn’t), and that to strengthen British authority, power, and influence in the Pacific, having one civic authority would be the way to go. He proposed that the laws of British Columbia be extended over Vancouver Island, that only the consent of the Legislative Council of British Columbia was needed, and the Governor of British Columbia could proclaim the union himself.

Amazingly, nearly all of his suggestions were taken, and British Parliament rushed a bill through that united the two colonies into one Colony of British Columbia on 6 August 1866.

Now, Seymour was the Governor of the united colonies. It was his right to select a site for the colony. Victoria was the capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island and New Westminster was the capital of the Colony of British Columbia. Instead of making the choice for himself, Seymour handed it over to the newly formed Legislative Council. He was expecting that New Westminster would be named the capital, as the government was made up mostly British Columbians and not Vancouver Islanders (five out of five of the Executive Council, six of nine in the Legislative Council, and five of the nine popularly elected members).

He didn’t know about Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, though. Dr. Helmcken had been Speaker of the House of Assembly in Victoria for a decade, and had become an able parliamentarian. He ignored a suggestion from Seymour that New Westminster be selected as the capital. And after prompting of Sir James Douglas, introduced a motion to select Victoria.

After nine and a half hours of debate, the vote stood 13 to 8 in favour of Victoria becoming the capital of the Colony of British Columbia.

But remember that proclamation by James Douglas that established New Westminster as the capital city of the Colony of British Columbia? What about that?

Seymour remembered it, and raised it as an issue with the Colonial Secretary before officially proclaiming Victoria as the capital, which kind of pissed off people in Victoria, while also showing his favouritism towards New Westminster (which, he once wrote, is “in my opinion the most respectable, manly and enterprising little community with which I have ever been aquainted.”)

The Duke of Buckingham and Chandos replied to Seymour’s despatch, who seemedrelatively perturbed that the matter hadn’t been settled:

I have to acknowledge your Despatch No. 87 of the 13th of July last, from which I learn that you are not yet prepared to recommend the adoption either of Victoria or of New Westminster as the Capital of British Columbia.

I leave the determination of this question still in your hands merely desiring that it may not be long delayed.

I take the opportunity of forwarding to you various documents which may affect your judgment, but which I have not hitherto sent to you because I was expecting from you a definite recommendation on the subject to which they related.

As the second paragraph of your Despatch contains something like an appeal to me for an expression of opinion, I think it requisite to say that the establishment of New Westminster as the Capital of British Columbia did not in my opinion involve any pledge on the part of the Government that the site of that Capital shall never be moved. It is of course always undesirable to disappoint natural expectations, and much consideration may be due to those who are so disappointed. But every land-purchaser in New Westminster or any other locality must be considered to buy his land, subject to the possible changes which the varying political or Commercial interests of the whole community may from time to time render necessary.

I will add that although I do not prescribe to you the choice of one or the other Capital, you will be at liberty, in case you should decide in favor of Victoria to quote the authority of the Home Government in support of that course.

The “exuberantly free press” of the time weighed in, as the British Colonist (a Victoria newspaper and precursor to today’s Times Colonist) called the Fraser River a “stream of liquid mud” and New Westminster a “pimple on the face of creation.”

And then, in the second session of the Legislative Council in 1868, they decided to end the controversy once and for all. Captain William Hales Franklyn was the magistrate for Nanaimo, and Nanaimo much preferred New Westminster over Victoria, Nanaimo’s “cruel step-mother”. William Cox, a Gold Commissioner and supporter of Victoria, was sitting next to Franklyn during the debate. Franklyn had a carefully prepared speech that started off by comparing the future of New Westminster on the Fraser with the present prosperity of Calcutta on the Hooghly. Cox managed to shuffle Franklyn’s papers three times, causing Franklyn to read the introduction over and over again. Then Franklyn put his spectacles down on the table, and Cox popped out the lenses!

Helmcken (a Victoria supporter) moved a recess of half an hour to restore order, and when the House reassembled and Franklyn began speaking again, rose to object on the grounds that Franklyn was making a second speech!

Astonishingly the objection stood, and the vote cast, and Victoria was capital.

The date of removal of New Westminster as capital? May 25, the day after May Day, which was normally a day of celebration in New Westminster. Another slap in the face from Victoria.


British Columbia: Papers Relative to the Affairs of British Columbia [Google Books]

Colonial Despatches, Buckingham & Chandos to Seymour

Frederick Seymour: Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Ormsby, Margaret A., British Columbia: A History, 1958.

On the Royal Lancers

New Westminster has a tradition where old men dance with twelve-year old girls.

Depending on where you live, you’ll either find that strange or delightful.

If you live in New Westminster, are white, and are over the age of 50, odds are you’ll find it delightful.

Otherwise, you’ll probably find this tradition a little strange and perhaps a little off-putting. I’m in this camp, and I am just fine with this tradition being cancelled.

To give a little background, the Royal Lancers, a fairly secret society of older men (I say this because I’ve been unable to find out who exactly is a Royal Lancer, or what it takes to become a Royal Lancer) have a dance each year with the May Queen Suite at the May Day banquet. The May Queen Suite is made up of Grade 5 girls from New Westminster school.

The City has said that the dance will no longer be part of the banquet, and this has rustled all kinds of jimmies around town.

(Aside: Take a look at this tweet as an example of what I mean by “white and over the age of 50” for who’s angriest about this whole thing. Fully one third of New Westminster residents have neither English nor French as a mother tongue, and they’re woefully under-represented in this “tradition”.)

The only argument I’ve seen towards keeping the dance the way it is is “it’s tradition”. Okay, I’ve also seen the “it strengthens bonds between generations” arguments, which is about the only one that I’ll accept as valid. “Tradition” is not a reason to keep it. There are an awful lot of things in our past that count as “tradition” that should be remembered but not celebrated, and I think this dance, in its current form, is one of them.

I read stories like this where the lancers say things like “I don’t believe council realizes the implications of their action” and I can’t help but think of a petulant child upset that his parents have taken his ball away from him. Their actions are taking away the whole spirit of the celebrations, which is to celebrate children. Instead, by stamping their feet they’re taking the attention away from the children that they profess to celebrate.

(Another aside: read that story again and note how the actual specifics of the dance aren’t mentioned. The only hint that old men might be dancing with young girls is in the “10 hours of cooperative participation” phrase — other than that it looks like the Lancers are just dancing by themselves. Why this subterfuge?)

In fact, that’s my biggest problem with the Royal Lancers: they say they’re respectable men but they act like petulant children.

Why aren’t the Royal Lancers saying anything about changing the dance? Why is the dance restricted to old men dancing with prepubescent girls? Why not include female business leaders? Why do the boys have to sit on the sidelines?

And why hasn’t anybody asked any of the kids currently in Grades 4 and 5 about it? Everything is from the viewpoint of the Lancers. Nothing is from the viewpoint of the children. There have been quotes from May Queens of past, but they’re a biased sample (and memories can change over time).

Here’s what the Royal Lancers should have done instead of throwing a tantrum: open it up. Make your little society a little less secret. Allow anybody to become a Royal Lancer. Change the dance to allow boys to dance. Allow anybody to dance with whoever they want (we don’t want “tradition” to push away anybody, right?). Get grandparents in there to dance with their grandchildren. Uncles, aunts, whoever, and name them Honourary Royal Lancers for the evening. Whatever you do, change it.

And remember the motto of New Westminster’s May Day: “For the Children, By the Children and of the Children.” Because that’s what’s most important, and that’s what the Royal Lancers have forgot.

Update: I found this article from September 2013 that talks about modernizing the Royal Lancers dance. I’d like to highlight two quotes:

[Councilor Chuck] Puchmayr said when the city introduced the Royal Knights—Grade 5 boys to accompany the May Queen Suite—he assumed they eventually would be the ones to dance with the girls. But that hasn’t happened. Instead they sit on the floor while the girls dance with the men. One father suggested to Puchmayr the Lancers could teach the boys how to dance with the girls.


“When the Lancers come in with the May Queen suite I must admit it’s quite stirring, it looks like they’re the protectors of the young girls. But then I thought about it and I went, ‘wait a minute,’ ” said Coun. Lorrie Williams, who also didn’t like seeing the boys sitting on the floor during the dance.

“It bothered me. I took a picture of that, they just watched and they almost looked like they were pushed aside. That was the illusion.”

Williams suggested the Lancers become the guardians of both the girls and the boys.

“It would be a welcome change. In adding the Knights when we did, we made a change to our tradition,” said Williams. “That way nobody steps down and nobody is offended.”

New Westminster City Council has been talking about this since then. In the August 26, 2013 minutes (thank you Rick!), on page 18 there is a motion resolving that “the City of New Westminster enters into discussion with Stakeholders and the School District for the purpose of modernizing this event.”

So two councilors are on the record for saying the dance should be changed, and yet no changes came about. Why not?

New Westminster Rumour Mill

This is first of what will hopefully be a monthly post here, where I report back on all of the rumours that are floating around the lovely city of New Westminster.

First up: the parkade. Rumour has it that Council has seen the light and they will not be tearing down half the parkade. Instead they are doubling-down and adding an extra three levels of parking! They will also be taking Columbia Street off its diet (come on people, everybody knows that diets don’t work) by removing the bike lanes and angled parking. It is expected that this will appeal to the mobile baby boomer, and the increased vehicle traffic and parking will return downtown New Westminster to the glory years of the 70s and 80s!

The canceling of the Royal Lancers dance has ruffled some feathers recently. While this is a sad end to a 100-year old tradition of grown men knocking on doors to ask fathers to turn over their 12-year old girls to go for a dance, some have felt that the dance has seen better days. Instead, the Royal Lancers will turn to the 1916 May Day celebrations for inspiration, where a demonstration of military maneuvers replaced the folk dance. Rumour has it that for the 100th anniversary of these celebrations, the Royal Lancers will shoot 12-year old girls out of cannons.

The Braid Street Bailey Bridge is open! As it is a new crossing, a modest toll of $5 for Coquitlam residents will apply.

The 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite is underway, although you wouldn’t know it because nobody has been talking about it lately. Has anybody heard anything about this thing?

That’s all for now from the New Westminster Rumour Mill!