City of Windsor celebrates 123rd birthday
By Justin Prince
From a pastoral farm community to an industrial boom town, the City of Windsor has changed a lot over the years.
Since being discovered by French entrepreneurs and coureurs de bois during the 17th century, the area since has seen settlers farm the shores of the Detroit River and build religious parishes like Assumption Parish in 1747. The area has also sent its citizens to fight in multiple wars and became a boom town with the rise of the Great Western Railway.
Windsor’s history is filled with growth, success and fame. It has also been filled with disaster, strikes and recessions.
And on May 18, on lands where the Canadian National Railway once ran, thousands of Windsorites celebrated the city’s 123rd birthday on the Riverfront Festival Plaza. On a piece of land where railroad tracks, train cars and dirt sat until the 1990s, young and old alike partied among an assortment of tents, bouncy castles and chalk drawings in the shadow of the Caesars Windsor casino across the street.
While a local band played cover songs on the main stage, three members of the Windsor Police Service Pipe Band were leading Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens and hundreds of others down the riverfront for the ninth annual Mayor’s Walk. Mayor Dilkens was joined at the front of the line by his family, friends and fellow members of city council. They were followed by a wide range of people, from physically active citizens to activists to professional athletes, all wanting to make the 30-minute trek through the city’s parks and sculpture gardens.
As the walkers arrived at the festivities, the band quieted down and a majority of the crowd took their seats among the foldable chairs and picnic tables set up in the centre of the plaza. All eyes turned towards a glass podium set up on the right-hand side of the stage.
Dilkens stood there to launch the city’s birthday celebrations, his first time since being elected as mayor of Windsor in October 2014.
“It’s a chance for us to come together as a community, regardless of political strife, regardless of ideology, regardless of belief,” said Dilkens to the crowd. “This is the one day where people can come together and celebrate the fact that we’re from Windsor and we’re darn proud of it.”
Celebrating the city’s birthday during Victoria Day weekend along the riverfront has become a tradition. According to 500 Ways to Know You’re From Windsor, published by Chris Edwards and Elaine Weeks in 2012, the significance of the long weekend points back to May 24, 1892 when Queen Victoria, during her 55th year as ruler of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, came to the area for her birthday to officially incorporate Windsor as a city.
About a month prior to the ceremony, the town council of the time sent a petition to the queen under the Municipal Act, hoping she would “grant the prayers” the corporation had to be called the City of Windsor after being a town for 34 years according to city documents.
“It’s always good to be part of a community celebration,” said Windsor-Tecumseh MPP Percy Hatfield, who represented Ward 7 on city council for seven years. “I was there when former mayor (Eddie) Francis started this (in 2006) so I’ve always attended. It’s great to have a community event, it’s great for people to be out … It just brings the community together.”
Stewart Eaglesham, who has lived in the city since 1999, agreed. The 59-year-old former Caesars Windsor employee said it was important to hold events like this help remind people of Windsor’s past.
“We tend to forget where we come from,” said Eaglesham while sitting with his family. “This is a way for people to get people back out and remember … who we are. You know, we’re people. We’re one.”
While the city continues to remember its past, it has also seen itself change a lot in recent years.
When the last recession started in December 2007, Windsor-Essex County was one of the hardest hit areas in Canada. By July 2009, the area’s unemployment rate had risen from 8.7 per cent to 15.7 per cent, the highest in the country. The city still had the highest unemployment rate in Canada this April at 11.5 per cent. General Motors of Canada also closed the Windsor Transmission plant on Walker Road in 2010 after moving its production to St. Catherine’s, Ont., costing the city at least 1,500 jobs and thousands more in spin-off jobs. The city had also lost more than 10,000 in additional jobs in the six years leading up to the recession according to an article by The Toronto Star.
Windsor has also seen many positive changes. In 2011, the city finished construction on a $68-million riverfront sewer basin to fix the city’s sewer runoff issues, which later won two awards. New facilities have also been built in the downtown core in recent years such as the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre and a new plaza for the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.
The area will see new construction projects starting in the near future, from the Gordie Howe International Bridge to a new swimming pool complex at the WFCU Centre.
“I think we’ve seen a lot of growth and seen a lot of our jewel areas blossom,” said Dilkens during a media scrum. “The waterfront we stand on was an area that was all railroads and industrial when I was a young kid and today it’s a waterfront park that goes all the way from Hiram Walker to the Ambassador Bridge. We’ve helped really beautify this city.”
Eaglesham said the city has not only changed in terms of its infrastructure, but also its people.
“The dynamics of the city have changed over the course of the last few years,” said Eaglesham. “I think myself it’s become more of a people place. It’s just a wonderful place to live.”
After Dilkens left the main stage he slowly made his way through the busy crowd towards the birthday cake tent in the centre of the plaza. It took about three minutes for him to get to the tent after stopping to shake hands with about a dozen Windsorites along the way. Once he arrived, he was given one of more than 40 cakes produced for the event and a large metal knife and after posing for photographs, he slowly sliced through the fluffy white icing of the cake.
As the wind blew out the candles on the city’s official birthday cake, he had one wish for the future of the city.
“Prosperity and jobs,” said Dilkens. “Number one issue we have as a city right now. That’s what we’re working on, that’s where our focus is and that’s where we intend to deliver.”