Happy Canadians who captured Vimy Ridge returning to rest billets on motor lorries in May, 1917. Canada’s contribution to the First World War led to growing autonomy and international recognition, but at great cost. As part of a British offensive in April 1917, Canadian soldiers captured the heavily fortified Vimy Ridge in northern France. (Photo courtesy of the Department of National Defence collection, Library and Archives Canada)

North Delta History: New Years Eve, 100 years ago

The year 1917 was one of the most grim and momentous in Canadian history

By Nancy Demwell

December 31, 1917 brought to a close one of the most grim and momentous years in Canadian history. It was still wartime, and there were huge casualties that year. Passchendaele cost 4,000 Canadian lives and another 12,000 casualties for little territorial gain. Vimy Ridge cost another 3,598 lives, with 7,004 wounded – but gained Canada recognition independent from the U.K.

The largest man-made explosion prior to Hiroshima was the Halifax explosion of Dec. 6. It cost nearly 2,000 lives, with 9,000 injured. Canada-wide, conscription was implemented, dividing French and English Canadians in a bitter feud. At home, income tax was introduced as a first time, “temporary” wartime measure that is still here with us today. However, there was a glimmer of hope as the Americans entered the war.

Here in B.C., women achieved the right to vote in 1917, but one quarter of the population of North Delta was Japanese, Chinese and First Nations, and they were still denied the right to vote in municipal, provincial and federal elections. Some of these same men were in Europe fighting in the First World War “for King and Country.”

That year, New Years Eve in North Delta was a restrained event in respect of the young men fighting abroad. These were lean times at home as food and materiel were diverted to the war effort. Also, prohibition had begun in B.C. on Oct. 1, 1917, so there was no legal popping of champagne corks at midnight.

Families and friends gathered together in small parties for a bit of music and dancing, to watch the fireworks across the water in New Westminster, to lift a glass of cordial to friends and family to thank them for support in the year past, and to wish them happiness in the new year.

Those North Deltan’s who decided they could afford it made the trek across the Fraser on the single-lane car bridge — built above the rail bridge in 1904 — to New Westminster. Dressed formally in tuxedos and ball gowns, they went to hotel parties to enjoy the glitter of the city, and danced to the wee hours of the morning. It might have cost some young men their entire pay cheques for a winter’s work.

The Norwegians of North Delta observed New Years Day in traditional fashion, shared with friends and family. Many celebrated New Year’s dinner in the old country tradition of eating pork as a symbol of abundance and a sweet rice pudding with almonds to confer one with a sweet year a head.

Nancy Demwell is a board member with the Delta Museum and Archives Society.

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Halifax, Nova Scotia was devastated on Dec. 6, 1917, when two ships collided in the city’s harbour, one of them a munitions ship loaded with explosives bound for the battlefields of the First World War. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

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