John Galt Day in 2020: Time for reflection, contemplation, and vision
During a typical year, we would be gathering this weekend at Market Square and the Civic Museum for a lively community celebration of Guelph and summertime. Alas, as we continue to do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19 by not congregating in crowds, perhaps this long weekend – this year – provides us an opportunity to reflect on our past, contemplate our present, and dream of our collective future in this place we now know as Guelph.
From Civic Holiday to John Galt Day
The August civic holiday dates back to the mid-1850s in Upper Canada (now Ontario). Mayors in various communities proclaimed one-day holidays, scattered through August, as “days of recreation;” a mid-summer break. Eventually, communities aligned their celebrations to fall on the first Monday in August. Guelph has enjoyed an August civic holiday since 1862. In 2006, Guelph City Council renamed the Civic Holiday in honour of the city’s founder. Since August 6, 2007 we have celebrated the first Monday in August as John Galt Day.
Who is John Galt?
John Galt (1779-1839) was a Scottish novelist, social and political commentator, entrepreneur, and colonial promoter. He was the first superintendent of the Canada Company, a land and colonization company based in England, which established Guelph on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation; on land acquired by the Crown as part of Between the Lakes Treaty No. 3 (1792).
Guelph was a planned town built with streets radiating from a single focal point, complete with facilities and services in place before settlement. Galt adopted the concept of an “instant city” in order to stimulate sales of agricultural land. Galt’s original layout is still visible in Guelph’s downtown core.
Galt named Guelph after Britain’s royal family, the Hanoverians, who were descended from the Guelfs. Founded in 1827, Guelph was incorporated as a village in 1851, and then as a town in 1856.
Due to conflict with the Canada Company directors, Galt was recalled to Britain in 1829. He spent the final decade of his life focused on literary pursuits. He died in 1839, and is buried in Greenock, Scotland.
In a 2006 letter to Guelph City Council supporting the renaming of the civic holiday, Dr. Gil Stelter wrote that Galt “determined the character of the early community by emphasizing cultural development and the community’s role in promoting advanced agriculture – characteristics that remain central to Guelph to this day.”
History is complicated
Indeed, Guelph would not be the place it is today without John Galt. This, however, is just part of our story. The history we have learned and shared over the past two centuries is framed largely through a white, Euro-centric lens. While we celebrate Galt, the stories of the Anishinaabe people who have cared for this land since time immemorial – and who reportedly guided and assisted Galt in his Guelph quest – have been disregarded and suppressed.
If he were here today, John Galt may have had issue with the erasure of the Indigenous narrative from Guelph and Canada’s founding story. While he made a living through colonial enterprise, Galt’s writings challenged colonial assumptions, demonstrated admiration and respect for First Nations, and likened colonialism to a disease that decimated Indigenous ways of life. It begs the question: if Galt felt that way, why was he such an enthusiastic contributor to colonization? Could he have done anything differently to change the course of our history; a history steeped in trauma? Could Galt be considered both colonizer and ally? As we continue to explore these questions, we are certain of two things: we need to listen and learn from multiple perspectives in order to have a clearer picture of the truth. And, history is complicated.
So, on this John Galt Day, as we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, and a time of reckoning, let us ask: how do we best move forward as a community that acknowledges its past and strives to build a better future for all?
The Apostate; Or, Atlantis Destroyed. A Tragedy in Five Acts and The New Atlantis; An American Legend, by John Galt and The Captive by Susanna Strickland (Moodie). Edited and introduction by David J. Knight. Forward by Dr. T. Berto. Afterword by Nick Ford. Vocamus Editions. Guelph, Ontario.