Arbor Day in Quebec: A Brief Early History

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Quebec City was a hive of activity on the morning of May 16, 1883, when farmers began arriving before daybreak to sell young trees to people planning to plant them that day. Shortly after 10:00 a.m. the city fire brigade and a detachment of “A” Battery headed by their band marched to the Legislative building where the lieutenant-governor and the archbishop each planted a tree. Government ministers then did the same in honour of other dignitaries, followed by the Arbor Committee with trees in honour of the premier, the mayor, the ex-ministers, and Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, who was primarily responsible for introducing Arbor Day to the province. The procession then re-formed and the ceremony was repeated at various places in the Old City including Citadel Hill and the ramparts above the Esplanade where, in the admiring words of the Montreal Daily Witness, one hundred maples and elms would “restore the fine square to its original beauty.” With no dignitary left without a tree to honour them, the mayor was presented with a silver pick and the “Lady Mayoress” with a silver spade as souvenirs of the occasion. Once the formalities had ended, the afternoon brought large-scale tree planting on the expansive grounds of the lieutenant-governor’s official residence at Spencer Wood. Finally, in the evening a “huge elm” was planted at the Garrison Club and a group photograph was taken “in commemoration of the day.”[i] So ended the first celebration of Arbor Day in Canada.

Arbor Day had originated south of the border in Nebraska where in 1872 prizes were first offered to counties and individuals planting the largest numbers of trees, and where it became an official holiday two years later. The tradition expanded to schools across the United States in 1882, and Arbor Day is still commonly observed in that country on the last Friday in April, having been recognized nation-wide under President Nixon in 1970.[ii] In Canada the national government has taken a less active role, leaving the initiative largely to provinces and municipalities. Although it lacks the visibility and impact of the much younger Earth Day (founded in 1970), Arbor Day is recognized on a global scale,[iii] and it is historically important because it marks the first large-scale attempt to raise public consciousness about the crucial importance of trees not only as an economic resource but also for their aesthetic value and environmental impact.

Arbor Day was, however, only one component of Joly’s campaign to promote forest conservation not only in Quebec but in the country as a whole. As heir to a heavily forested seigneurie on the south shore of the St Lawrence, he had a deep knowledge of the lumber economy, and as a lawyer and prominent Liberal politician who served as premier in 1878-79, he was in a good position to be a conservationist spokesman.

Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière near his home on Pointe Platon shortly before his death in 1908. Bibliothèque et Archives nationale du Québec, P351,S1,P3. 

To conserve the vast northern coniferous forests, Joly could only advocate stricter government regulation over the crown lands, reforestation on such a massive scale still being impractical.[iv] But the province’s farmland was another matter. Joly was passionately interested in sylviculture, and particularly in the cultivation of the black walnut which he began planting on his own land in 1874 because of its rapid growth and high value as lumber.[v] He believed, however, that the most important reason for reforesting the less arable sections of the province’s farmland was to reverse the environmental damage caused by the eradication of its tree cover. In 1882, while arguing in Quebec’s Legislative Assembly for the introduction of Arbor Day, he complained that not only were good farms being sold at a sacrifice due to the lack of firewood, but deforestation was causing the drying up of streams followed by floods after each major rainfall.[vi]

It seems somewhat unlikely that the elaborate ceremony that introduced Arbor Day to Quebec City would do much to alter farmers’ practices, but Joly’s aim was clearly to capture the public’s attention at the outset. His hope, he declared in the Legislative Assembly, was that the official recognition of Arbor Day would shift public opinion by removing the prejudices inherited from the first colonists. As a good patrician, Joly argued that with the aid of the clergy and all men of “progress” and “education,” the people would before long come to accept Arbor Day as one of their national institutions. The Conservative commissioner of crown lands was more sceptical about the influence such a proclamation would have in changing popular attitudes, but he did ensure that Joly’s motion to institute Arbor Day was passed in the Legislature.[vii]

Reflecting the regional differences in climate, May 7 was chosen for Arbor Day in the province’s southwest, and May 16 for the east. Quebec’s schools were closed and its municipalities, religious organizations, and agricultural societies were invited to participate.[viii] As described above, Joly ensured that Quebec City would set an impressive example. Even though most of the activity continued to be focussed on the beautification of urban public spaces during the following years,[ix] for Joly the main contribution of Arbor Day would be educational and he believed that the best hope lay with the youth.

As a Paris-educated Protestant, Joly was critical of the impractical nature of Quebec’s Catholic school curriculum,[x] so it was hardly surprising that he would promote the American idea of making Arbor Day a school holiday when children would plant trees. In his paper delivered to the 1883 meeting of the recently established American Forestry Congress, Joly argued that planting a tree was a valuable life lesson for a child, teaching “foresight, observation, patience, care for the smallest details and perseverance.” Children were to be informed that it might take “twenty, thirty, forty years, or more” before a tree was big enough to cut down, but even if they had moved away or died in the meantime, their work would not have been lost: “if you do not profit by it others will, and you will have done more than many a grown up man has done – you will have left something useful behind you.”[xi]

Joly returned to the same theme eleven years later, in 1894, when he wrote to the Protestant committee of the Council of Public Instruction that the logical place to begin the education process was with boys: “Wherever plantations are made, in our cities and villages and along the country roads, too often do we hear the complaint that boys injure the trees by pulling off branches, whenever they can reach them and damaging the bark. One must have planted a tree and watched it, growing steadily year after year, to understand the bitter disappointment with which it is, one day, discovered with some severe wound caused by a boy passing, thoughtlessly, without meaning mischief just for the pleasure of working off his superabundant activity by tearing off a branch.” Made aware of the damage he had caused, the boy would feel shame, and “that feeling of protection and thoughtful consideration, once started within him, will not remain confined to inanimate trees.” The Council’s response was to print Joly’s letter and place it in the hands of inspectors for distribution in the schools.[xii]

Joly did admit the following year, in 1895, that relatively few trees were planted on Arbor Day, yet he argued that even the least reflective of individuals would be struck by the sight of the Queen’s representative and “nos hommes les plus éminents” planting trees with their own hands. School children looked forward to the holiday, he added, but it was still more important that some of them became attached to the trees they had planted, nurturing them from year to year, thereby learning the secret to success in life: “planter avec soin, cultiver avec persévérance.”

As for the practicality of rural reforestation, Joly acknowledged that the transplanting of young trees from the forest was time consuming and often unsuccessful, and that commercial nursery stock was beyond the means of most farmers. He recommended, therefore, that they create their own nurseries, and he provided advice on when to plant the seeds of a number of species, adding that – in the case of maples – seedlings could simply be transplanted from the forest floor. Reiterating his faith in the younger generation, Joly claimed that farm children would, with a little encouragement, take pleasure in caring for the young trees.[xiii] Joly’s sylviculture campaign may have had more impact on the dry western prairies than in Quebec where Arbor Day appears to have begun fading in popularity as early as the 1890s.[xiv] The provincial forestry association did revive it in 1940, however, and in 1986 the Quebec government announced that the first week of May was to be recognized as the “Semaine de l’arbre et des forêts.” The concept of a specific date set aside for trees and forests was further diluted in 2001 when the week was expanded to the entire month of May.[xv] Finally, in 2011 the Canadian government designated the third Wednesday in September as National Tree Day, but the era when it was an official holiday in at least some of the provinces has long passed.

Feature image credit: Arbor-day at Upper Canada College, 1898. (George Parkin with arm outstretched). By George R. Parkin. Library and Archives Canada, PA-100787.


[i] Montreal Daily Witness, 17 May 1883. Viewed 29 April 2020.
[ii] “History of Arbor Day,”; Both viewed 27 April 2020.
[iii] See the list of countries in “Arbor Day,” Viewed 27 April 2020.
[iv] See J.I. Little, Patrician Liberal: The Public and Private Life of Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, 1829-1908 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), chapter 5.
[v] Hon. H.G. Joly, Forest Tree Culture, From a Paper in the Montreal Horticultural Society’s Report for 1880 (Montreal: Witness Printing House, 1881), 6.
[vi] Little, Patrician Liberal, 187.
[vii] Little, Patrician Liberal, 187-8.
[viii] For details, see Marc Gadoury, “Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière: Visionnaire et promoteur de la conservation des forêts, au Québec, à la fin du XIXe siècle” (MA thesis, Laval University, 1998), 62-3.
[ix] Gadoury, “Sir Henri-Gustave Joly,” 63-4.
[x] Little, Patrician Liberal, 110-11.
[xi] H.G. Joly, “The Study of Forestry as an Important Contributor to Practical Education,” State Horticultural Society, Annual Report, 236-8 (Read at the St. Paul meeting of the American Forestry Congress, 8 Aug. 1883).
[xii] Quoted in Little, Patrician Liberal, 188.
[xiii] H.G. Joly de Lotbinière, “La Fête des Arbres,” La Revue Nationale 1, no. 3 (April 1895): 221-6. 
[xiv] René Hardy, “Exploitation forestière et environnement au Québec, 1850-1920,” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Kanada-Studien 27, no. 2 (1995): 72. Joly is portrayed on the cover of the book, William Silvering’s Surrender: A Story of Western Experiences, written by George Bryce to encourage tree planting and published by the Winnipeg Forestry Association in 1901.
[xv] “Historique du Mois de l’arbre et des forêts.” > les-forets. Viewed 27 April 2020.
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Jack Little

Jack Little is a Professor Emeritus in the Simon Fraser University History Department. He currently lives on Salt Spring Island, and his two most recent books are At the Wilderness Edge: The Rise of the Antidevelopment Movement on Canada’s West Coast (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), and Fashioning the Canadian Landscape: Essays on Travel Writing, Tourism and National Identity in the Pre-Automobile Era (University of Toronto Press, 2018).

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