Red Deer has been the scene of a number of notable political events in its history. One of the most momentous took place 100 years ago in August 1910, when the prime minister of Canada, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, made an extended visit to the community.
Laurier had been in Red Deer before. His first visit occurred on September 20, 1894 when he was the federal Leader of the Opposition and Red Deer was a hamlet with only 150 residents. The second took place on Aug. 30, 1905, while Laurier was on his way north for the ceremonies in Edmonton to officially declare Alberta a province.
However, both the 1894 and 1905 visits were brief. The 1910 visit was to be different. This time Laurier was to stay in Red Deer for two days.
News that Laurier would be including Red Deer as a major stop on his summer tour of Western Canada was received in June. Tremendous excitement followed. Grand plans were quickly drawn up. The community not only wanted to suitably welcome the prime minister, but also wanted to ensure the recognition of Red Deer as one of the centres of growth and prosperity in the West.
Hence, a very impressive archway was constructed at the intersection of Gaetz Avenue and Ross Street. It had four large towers. It was covered in flags, bunting, sheaves of grain, and local produce. There were large signs with slogans of welcome and boosting Red Deer. The local Western General Electric power company donated several hundred bulbs so that the edifice could be lit up at night.
Huge crowds greeted Laurier’s arrival on the afternoon of August 10. The official procession, which made its way from the newly constructed CPR Station to the Civic Square next to the Town Hall, included Laurier, Alberta Premier Arthur Sifton, several MPs, MLAs and local elected officials. The Red Deer Citizen’s Band the 15th Light Horse militia were given the honour of leading the parade.
Once at the Civic Square, the mayor and local dignitaries made lengthy speeches of welcome. Special time was also given to the provincial president of the United Farmers of Alberta, James Bower of Red Deer, so that he could present the concerns and viewpoints of the farmers. So important was the speech to Bower that although he started to have a heart attack, he refused to be taken to hospital until after he had finished making his presentation to the prime minster.
After the civic reception, the delegation then went to a spot on Gaetz Avenue, north east of the current site of the Capri Centre, to drive the first spike for the Alberta Central Railway This was a new rail line that was being built from Red Deer to Rocky Mountain House but which also had dreams of eventually extending across much of the prairies to the B.C. coast.
A summer thunderstorm cut short the A.C.R. ceremony. Unfortunately, another sudden storm cut short a huge public meeting held the next day in Waskasoo Park, near Piper’s Mountain.
The dignitaries, and all those who were able, quickly relocated to Lyric Theatre on Ross Street, where the speeches continued. Unfortunately, the theatre owners had put heavy coats of shellac on the wooden seats the day before. Many of the attendees consequently left large portions of their clothing behind when they went to leave.
The visit wrapped up on the Thursday evening with an elaborate reception on the lawn of H.H. Gaetz’s large residence on Douglas (55th) Street, just west of where Sacred Heart Church stands today.
Laurier departed early Friday morning after spending a second night in the Ellis mansion on the corner of Douglas Street and Poplar (46th) Avenue.
Despite the two thunderstorms and the other glitches, everyone agreed that the visit had been a wonderful success. Red Deer had successfully asserted its place on the new economic and political map of Canada. Moreover, Laurier kept the promises he made, during his 1910 Western tour, to run in the next election on a platform of Reciprocity, or Free Trade.
Laurier lost the 1911 election to the Sir Robert Borden and the Conservative Party, who ran on a platform more sympathetic to the manufacturing and financial interests of Eastern Canada. Nevertheless, Red Deer voted overwhelmingly for Dr. Michael Clark, the local Laurier Liberal candidate.
Almost all of the rest of Alberta also voted Liberal in 1911, except for Calgary, which elected R.B. Bennett, a wealthy Conservative lawyer.
Michael Dawe is the curator of history for the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.