Museum Musings: April Fools!

by Fred Payton

A week today is April 1st.  We all know what that means.  It’s the day when you are allowed, even encouraged, to pull pranks on family, friends, and neighbours.  Even people you don’t know.  But only until noon time.  According to custom, if you pull an April Fools joke after 12:00 o’clock noon, then you are the fool.

One of my favourite April Fools jokes involved me only peripherally.  The local morning radio show announced to its listeners that at a specified time that morning the railway bridge would be cranked open just like it used to be.  Long term residents of Prince Albert and area will know that, when it was built, the railway bridge was constructed such that a portion of it could revolve.  This would allow for the steamboats, such as the Marquis or the Northcote, to pass through the opening without having their steam pipes ripped off.

A friend of mine, having heard this announcement on the radio and knowing my penchant for all things historical immediately called me and excitedly passed on the news.  Would I drop everything that I planned to do that morning and rush down to the river bank to watch this wondrous event?  “Well, no,” I replied and proceeded to douse the flames of enthusiasm.  “What is the date today?”  I felt quite miserable for dampening all that excitement evident in my friend’s voice.

As frequently happens, my April Fools Day recollection regarding this April Fools Day joke was prompted by an item which I had come across while researching an entirely different matter.  I had read, buried in Dr. F.W. Baker’s history of the Frederick Charles Baker family, a reference to an April 5th, 1889 article from the Prince Albert Times and Saskatchewan Review, a weekly publication operated by J.D. Maveety.

Thomas Horace McGuire, a native of Kingston, Ontario, had practised law in that city until his appointment in 1887 as Judge of the Supreme Court for the District of Saskatchewan.  He travelled to Battleford in June, 1888, to hear a case there.  One year later he moved his wife and young son to Prince Albert from Kingston, where the seat of the District’s Supreme Court was centered.

The following year, there was considerable speculation that Sir John A. MacDonald’s Government might be defeated on a vote dealing with the Jesuits Estate Act.  When the British had defeated the French at the battle of the Plains of Abraham, they had confiscated all the land under French control, including land which had been owned by the Jesuit Society, an order of priests who had been suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1774.  The income from the Jesuit lands was eventually segregated from other Crown income and dedicated for educational purposes.  In 1814, the Society was revived by Pope Pius VII, and in 1842 members of the Society returned to Canada where they began to campaign for compensation for the lands which had been confiscated. 

As a result of mediation effected in 1888 through Pope Pius XIII, a bill to resolve the dispute was passed in the Quebec legislature, allowing for financial compensation to the church, to Laval University, and to several Roman Catholic dioceses.  Additional funding was allocated for the Society and for the Protestant Committee of the Council of Public Instruction. 

When a motion was introduced in the House of Commons demanding the overturn of the Quebec bill, MacDonald and the majority of the Conservative Party opposed the motion and, with the support of Laurier’s Liberals, soundly defeated it.

It was this federal matter which formed the basis of the April Fools joke which was perpetrated on the people of Prince Albert in 1889, and which was reported in the April 5th edition of the Prince Albert Times and Saskatchewan Review.

Under the heading “April Fool”, the newspaper reported that “the first of April was pregnant with joy to the greater population of the people of Prince Albert.”  The newspaper went on to report that the president of the local Liberal Association had announced that he had received a telegram, purporting to come from the east, advising that the Conservative government in the House of Commons had fallen by two votes on the issue of the Jesuit question.  The Honourable Justice T.H. McGuire, the Association’s president, announced that no time must be wasted in “notifying the faithful” and that a candidate “of the Grit persuasion” must be found and nominated immediately in order to contest the forthcoming election.

As the Liberals had been “hoping and praying for the defeat of the Government” (according to the newspaper’s report) they were the more readily “gulled than the Tories” as their hopes and desires were so suddenly and unexpectedly realised.  The paper went on to suggest that “we have not heard that any of them went crazy, but fears were entertained during the day that the mental equilibrium of some of them might be unsettled.”

The paper further reported that “our Liberal friends were not the only ones to be taken in by the joke, (but) nearly the whole town was fooled, and some Conservatives wore a look of disgust on their faces.” In fact, so seriously did the people of Prince Albert take Justice McGuire’s announcement, two individuals were immediately encouraged to accept the nomination.

It was further reported that nothing very startling occurred until evening, when about 9 o’clock it became known that it was the first of April and a grand prank had been pulled by the Supreme Court judge.  Quicker than they had emerged in the morning, those tricked returned to the solitude of their homes to await a more distant overthrow of the MacDonald government.

Of one thing we can be certain, no Judge will be pulling a similar trick on us this coming April 1st, as in this day and age judges are not be allowed to hold a position such as president of any political party.  But be warned, as next Thursday approaches, there may be some crafty person lurking in the metaphorical bushes, ready to leap out and prank you much as the Honourable Mr. McGuire did to the citizens of Prince Albert in 1889.

And just a reminder (this is no joke!), the Historical Museum will be open to the public the afternoons of April 6th to 9th from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. free of charge.  We will, however, be accepting any donations which our visitors might wish to make.

Join us Tuesday, April 6th, for a scavenger hunt in the Historical Museum.  On Wednesday, April 7th, noted Prince Albert artist, Leah Dorion, will lead us as we explore historic beading patterns.  Then on Thursday, April 8th, test your knowledge of days gone by as we show you artefacts from our collection and ask “what is it?”.  Finally, on Friday, April 9th, get some fresh air and exercise as we take an historic tour on the river bank.  More information on these fun family activities can be found on our Facebook page,