New Brunswick

Saint John's 235th birthday celebration won't start with a bang

It seems not even the power of a battery of howitzers can stand up to the coronavirus. Saint John's 21-gun birthday salute is cancelled, along with the rest of the 235th birthday celebration.

Traditional 21-gun salute has been cancelled by COVID-19 concerns, along with the other birthday events

3rd Field Artillery Regiment performing the annual 21-gun salute to mark Saint John's birthday. The annual salute has been cancelled this year, Saint John's 235th birthday. (United Empire Loyalists' Association NB)

It has always been a bit hard to forget Saint John's birthday, at least once noon hour rolled around on the big day.

At noon every May 18, the city's army reserve unit, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, fires off a 21-gun salute to mark the day.

"We always prided ourselves that this would happen," said Bernard Cormier, who recently retired after serving as Saint John's cultural affairs and protocol officer for 32 years.

"And it would often take people by surprise."

But it seems not even the power of a battery of howitzers can stand up to the coronavirus.

Contacted Thursday by CBC News, Mayor Don Darling initially said he was assuming it would happen but needed to confirm it. Not long after, he sent another response: "Unfortunately cancelled." 

Bernard Cormier worked for 32 years as Saint John's cultural affairs and protocol officer. Cormier says it's hard to pinpoint when the tradition of a 21-gun salute began in Saint John. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

Saint John marks its 235th birthday Monday, which is also called Loyalist Day. 

The city was officially incorporated by a Royal Decree in 1785, two years after the Loyalist arrival in the region.

And 2020 will be the first time that birthday won't be celebrated with a 21-gun salute in decades.

It's hard to pin down exactly how the tradition started.

Normally, in Canada, a 21-gun salute is reserved for royalty or the Crown's representative, a visiting foreign head of state, on Remembrance Day or in celebration of Canada Day in a capital city.

Queen Victoria apparently gave 3rd Field Artillery Regiment special permission to perform a 21-gun salute for the city of Saint John. (Senate of Canada)

The story goes that 3rd Field Artillery Regiment had to get a special exemption from Queen Victoria herself to perform the salute.

The Queen apparently granted the permission because of its standing as the oldest artillery unit in Canada, able to trace its lineage back to 1793.

But Cormier said he has never actually been able to track down the documentation to verify the claim.

"It's probably buried deep in some archive," he said.

It probably didn't hurt that Saint John had a strong Loyalist tradition, and the unit itself was nicknamed "The Loyal Company." 

The regiment has a long history in Saint John, going back to the Loyal Company of Artillery, formed on May 4, 1793. Since then, Saint John, being an important port city, has been home to an artillery unit.

The 3rd Field Artillery Regiment has a long history in the city, tracing its lineage back to The Loyal Company of Artillery, formed in 1793. This is a 19th century photo of manning a coastal gun in Saint John. (Submitted by Roger Sarty)

Cormier thinks the annual tradition for the salute likely started decades after Victoria's death. His best guess is around the time of the city's 150th birthday.

The event usually included an inspection of the guns by the city's mayor, in mayoral robes and chain of office, although Cormier said that tradition has become less popular in recent years.

Whatever the case, the guns won't be thumping out a birthday salute Monday.

All other public events have also been cancelled.

Instead, the city of Saint John is asking citizens to take part in a virtual celebration by marking the day in their own, pandemic-safe manner and posting pictures and videos on the city's Facebook page.

About the Author

Steven Webb

Producer

Steven Webb is a producer for CBC based in Saint John

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