New Westminster is a proud and busy place this week. As the Hyack Festival proudly begins its 40th year of celebrating the city, children around the city are busy practicing how to folk dance and dance together around May Poles to celebrate May Day on May 25th. Ambassadors are preparing, volunteers are working hard and everyone in the city is looking forward to the wonderful celebrations. As parents and grandparents watch their children and smile, memories are rich within their minds. For some of the older people in the city, a name and face who embodied those celebrations for almost 100 years might come to mind. “Mr. May Day”, J.J. Johnston is proudly remembered as a symbol of the events and celebration of youth in New Westminster.
The first May Day took place in Sapperton in 1870. A celebration organized by the Hyack Engine Company , it was to appreciate the children of the city and celebrate how those young citizens could proudly use their energy to help the young city grow and mature along with those children. William and Elizabeth Johnston helped organize and attended that first May Day. With them was their newly born son, John Joseph. Soon to be known as J.J., throughout his life their son embodied the birth, growth and pride of New Westminster that May Day came to represent. Through his 96 years in New Westminster, J.J. Johnston attended every May Day celebration, was actively involved in many of them. So much so, to the people of our city he became known as “Mr. May Day”.
As he grew up, J.J. Johnston was vibrantly involved in the city along with his parents, 8 siblings and extended family. He met and helped people around New Westminster, worked throughout the city in his youth and by 1906 he started an Insurance and Real Estate company that he kept involved with until he was in his 90s. In 1907 Mr. Johnston was elected to council and he served as Mayor from 1920 to 1923. During that time he became an active member of the May Day committee each year to organize the celebrated events. Through the years he shared his memories through of the early May Days with many people, helping build an understanding and appreciation of the event. In a 1949 interview with Vic Andrew, Mr. May Day expressed his fondness by stating he “could become a kid for a day”, every year. As the ‘perennial General Chairman’ and Master of Ceremonies alternatively with J.J. Cambridge for many years at May Day, children in New Westminster first came to know him as Mr. May Day. As those children grew up with him being part of the event through their lives, the yearly celebration and the name became synonymous with J.J. Johnston.
Through the years, along with youth, May Day in New Westminster became a celebration of the heritage and pride of people within the city. As J.J. Johnston aged through the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Mr. May Day was saluted and thanked for his contributions to the growth and pride of the city. As Master of Ceremonies in 1950, May Queen Patricia D’Arcy presented a cane to Mr. May Day, from the children of New Westminster in appreciation to his 80 year contribution to all the May Days in the city. In 1955 J.J. Johnston was given the honour of “Freeman of the City of New Westminster” by council for his services and 50 years ago at the 1961 May Day, he was celebrated and thanked by all the children, with his cane to help him stand. After his death in 1966, J.J. Johnson was honoured with a tribute at a special meeting of council on May 21, 1967 and a special memorial to Mr. May Day was built in Queen’s Park that remains today.