Delegates attending the 43rd dominion convention in Winnipeg this June will be meeting under the theme, “Birthplace of the Legion—Uniting the Nation.”
The theme refers to the founding of The Royal Canadian Legion at the historic Marlborough Hotel in November 1925 which was officially declared an event of national historic significance last fall by Environment Minister and Minister responsible for Parks Canada Jim Prentice.
The designation, recommended by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, was announced Nov. 28 in Winnipeg by local MP and Minister of State for Democratic Reform Stephen Fletcher.
“Founded on the twin pillars of loyalty and comradeship, the Legion’s primary purpose since its creation has been to the service of the veteran and continuation of the memory of those who served,” said Prentice in a statement.
Dominion President Wilf Edmond said, “We are extremely pleased with this special tribute. The Royal Canadian Legion plays an active role in most of our communities and for its founding to be recognized for its significance to Canada is indeed a great honour.”
While the grand hotel is only one of the several hotels where Legionnaires will be staying while attending the June 13-16 convention at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, it has a long history of military involvement. Much of that involvement was outlined last June in a speech by Marlborough Hotel Corporate Director of Sales and Marketing John Perrin at the opening ceremonies for the 44th Manitoba–Northwestern Ontario Command convention.
Perrin applied to the monuments board to have the official designation backed by the support of the provincial command, Dominion Command and the hotel’s owners, Manfred Boehm and Ted Bloomer.
The hotel already has a plaque which was unveiled in 1950 commemorating the founding of the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Service League. It was unveiled in 1950 by one of the founders of the Legion, Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Turner VC. The date on the plaque reads May 15, 1950, although Perrin points out it was really unveiled on Sept. 11, 1950, since the planned date of the unveiling had to be postponed because of the Red River Flood of 1950. However, the plaque had already been cast and the date could not be changed.
The hotel was built in 1912 as the Olympia Hotel by some of the earliest Italian immigrants to Winnipeg in the boom era just before the start of the First World War.
“Designed by Winnipeg architect James Chisholm in the late gothic revival style, the hotel combined just enough Renaissance influence to satisfy the expectations of affluent travellers in the late Edwardian period,” said Perrin. “The hotel was four storeys in height and was described at the time as the miniature hotel deluxe of Canada.”
However the Olympia Hotel failed in changing economic times and the onslaught of the war. It closed in 1915 and lay dormant while creditors searched for new owners. In was briefly revived during the First World War when the 184th Battalion secured the building as barracks.
The Winnipeg Free Press reported in Feb. 25, 1916, that “the recruits of this battalion are dining in the magnificent Grill Room, sleeping in palatial bedrooms, most of them with private baths and otherwise enjoying the privileges of the idle rich, all of which is having a marked influence on recruiting for this battalion.
“There is no other battalion in all the British Empire quartered in such splendid barracks. The bar is being fixed up as a canteen and recreation room.”
A photograph of the battalion in formation on Smith Street outside the front entrance of the hotel is located in the lobby near the plaque unveiled by Turner.
The hotel changed hands several times before reopening with a six-storey addition which was added on top of the existing four.
“This, of course, was an era when Canada was a proud part of the British Empire, and the owners no doubt had been looking for a suitably impressive name for the newly enlarged hotel. So they named it The Marlborough, after Britain’s famous military leader, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough,” said Perrin.
The Marlborough has heritage status with the city of Winnipeg. It has a massive arched main floor and mezzanine with ornamental mouldings and heavy iron light fixtures. Outside is a steel and cast-iron canopy with gothic ornamentation.
The dining room, named Churchill’s after the 7th Duke of Marlborough’s grandson Sir Winston Churchill, features a two-storey rib vaulted ceiling, walnut wainscoting and an orchestra gallery. On top of the hotel is a grand two-storey concert ballroom with articulated wall surfaces and tall windows.
The hotel also had the distinction of being the longtime home to the Winnipeg Press Club which had premises in the basement.
It was certainly the pre-eminent hotel in Winnipeg when more than a dozen veterans groups came together at the Unity Conference to form the Legion in 1925 and chose Lieutenant-General Sir Percy Lake, a British general who had retired to British Columbia, as the first dominion president. The Legion returned again in January 1927 for the first dominion convention.
When Legionnaires gather in the Winnipeg Convention Centre for this year’s dominion convention, they will be just a few blocks away from the organization’s original birthplace.