Meet J.J. Johnston: New Westminster’s ‘Mr. May Day’

The crowning of May Queen Elsie Hogg in 1925 by the 1924 May Queen Ester Elofson. Mr. May Day J.J. Johnston is the man standing to the left of her and the Master of Ceremonies that year, J.J. Cambridge is to her right
The crowning of May Queen Elsie Hogg in 1925 by the 1924 May Queen Ester Elofson. Mr. May Day J.J. Johnston is the man standing to the left of her and the Master of Ceremonies that year, J.J. Cambridge is to her right

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”.

J.J. Johnston proudly attending May Day in 1965 at aged 95. A severe illness kept him from the 1966 May Day, but he was brought things to celebrate and died within that week
J.J. Johnston proudly attending May Day in 1965 at aged 95. A severe illness kept him from the 1966 May Day, but he was brought things to celebrate and died within that week

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.

 

Fireworks viewing party at La Perla

Hyack Fireworks Poster
Hyack Festival Opening Celebration Poster

Change is good. Don’t get me wrong I’m all for tradition, but it’s nice to switch things up once in a while! And that’s exactly what Hyack is doing this year with the 40th Annual Opening Celebration of the Hyack Festival.

There have always been fireworks, at least always in my recent memory, as the big kick off to the annual Festival, but we’ve seen some changes in recent years with a location further down river. This weekend, the Fireworks barge is moving across from the River Market, and the Hyack Festival Association is hosting a fabulous viewing party from La Perla, the new banquet space.

When I worked at the Riverboat Casino, which used to be a great vantage point for the fireworks, I always looked forward to the Hyack Festival Fireworks weekend. The vibe was so energizing, people lining the boardwalk, music wafting in the air, and guests lining the rails of the Riverboat in anticipation of the big show. I always thought that once the Casino moved to a new location the best place to see them would be from that second floor space of the Market. I’m excited to find out if I’m right! Inside La Perla you’ll find plenty of appetizers, live music, dancing and an exclusive view of the main show.

La Perla
La Perla

Of course many will gather on the boardwalk and the parkade to join in the fun too. See you there!

Event details:

  • Saturday, May 21st: Hyack Festival Fireworks
  • Fireworks at 10pm
  • Tickets are $25 each or 2 for $40 for the LaPerla viewing party between 8pm and midnight
  • Call Hyack at 604.522.6894 for more details

What does ‘Hyack’ mean anyway?

The Anvil Battery now, with the bright red uniforms from Hyack Company #1 (Photo: Will Tomkinson)
The Anvil Battery now, with the bright red uniforms from Hyack Company #1 (Photo: Will Tomkinson)

For almost 14O years, thousands of New Westminsterites have enjoyed celebrations like May Day, the famous Ancient Hyack Anvil Battery, parades down our main streets and the crowning of Miss New Westminster.  The Hyack Festival Association continues these New Westminster traditions that many people have enjoyed for their whole lives, introduces them to new generations and shares them with people from around the world. People enjoying the festivities and the city often wonder what the word ‘Hyack’ means and how it became such an important part of the language of New Westminster.

Throughout the 19th Century as Europeans began settling up and down the West Coast from Northern California to what would become B.C., they traded, worked with and learned from aboriginal people about the lands. Communication was often difficult because of the different languages of aboriginal people and the settlers. Throughout that time, a common language emerged to help the people communicate more successfully that took words from various languages and developed into what came to be known as Chinook Jargon. Although the exact origin of many of the words is unknown, many of them became very much a part of the common language used by settlers. Many Common phrases used at the time are still in use today or had things named for them. For example, Tyee meant a leader, Kimtah was looking back, a Skukumchuck was a strong waterway and Cultus meant worthless. Another important word in Chinook Jargon was Hyack, that meant swift, fast or to hurry up.

The Hyack Company #1 Band, celebrating with the Fire King on Columbia Street in the early years (IHP 0086)
The Hyack Company #1 Band, celebrating with the Fire King on Columbia Street in the early years (IHP 0086)

As the Royal Engineers and others in New Westminster started building the new town in the 1850s and 1860s, one of earliest and most important groups to be established was a volunteer fire department. In 1861, the “Hyack Company #1” was given its name to inspire the more than 50 men who volunteered to be part of a swift group who would hurry up when they were called into action. The motto of the brigade was “ready, aye, ready” that was inscribed in their headquarters on the north side of Columbia Street, just east what is now Sixth Street. Nearly 30 people were required to operate their original piece of equipment, the “Fire King”, a large hand operated pump bought in 1863. Any one person could only operate it about 10 minutes, but in the early years of New Westminster, it was said that the “work was completed by those Skukum (Chinook Jargon for Strong) volunteers in their battles with the fire fiend” (an unidentified Fire Chief in the early 20th Century, from the New Westminster Museum and Archives).

As part of the very first Victoria Day celebrations, New Westminster residents wanted a 21 gun salute to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday on May 24. Because no cannons had arrived in the city to fire the salute early, the Hyack Company used gunpowder between anvils to fire the salute. As New Westminster residents know, the Ancient Hyack Anvil Battery became a very important part of celebrations that survive now. The bright red uniforms that people see worn today for the Anvil Battery are a representation of the original dress uniforms worn by the Hyack Company #1. Some say that the swiftness of the Anvil Battery may also be why the name Hyack became associated with the events.

A celebration of the Hyack Anvil Battery from about 110 years ago (IHP0480)
A celebration of the Hyack Anvil Battery from about 110 years ago (IHP0480)

The proud Hyack Company became a very important part of other city events early on in the history of New Westminster. When the Fire King arrived in 1863, many of the members of the Royal Engineers Band were part of the volunteer firefighters, so dressed in their uniforms and performed for the residents to celebrate. They later became known as the Hyack Band, so when May Day began in 1870, they became a very important part of the celebrations. Ever since then, the band, the Anvil Battery and other parts of the original Hyack Company #1 became recognized and acknowledged as a key part of all the events each May, with their uniforms being a representation of the history of the festivities.

After 100 years of celebrating the special events each May, the Hyack Festival Association was established in 1971 to preserve the historical spirit of the events and to organize them into a full and rich celebration of New Westminster. The name was taken as a remembrance to the Hyack Company #1 and their historic significance in the city. The Association’s endeavours have preserved the name and helped keep the meaning and significance of the Chinook Jargon and keep the word within the language of New Westminster ever since the first settlers arrived and carry it on into the future.