Manitoba History: Roads of Remembrance
by Gordon Fulton
In November 1918, Canadians turned from waging war to the duty of commemorating the dead. This traditionally meant statuary: thousands of statues, obelisks, cairns, steles, shafts, cenotaphs, and crosses were erected in Canada in the years following the war. There were those, however, who believed “the time when it was the custom to place bronze effigies of soldiers on granite pillars as an excuse for forgetting deeds of valour is happily past.”  They promoted instead practical memorials such as hospitals, schools, halls, and libraries. These memorials were “designed with a view to their being of service to the communities in which they will be erected.”  From this school of thought came the idea for Roads of Remembrance.
Characteristically, these Roads of Remembrance (commonly known in Canada as memorial avenues) were linear tree-lined avenues, usually in semi-rural or suburban settings. The trees were typically a single species, regularly spaced along each side of the avenue. The species would, ideally, grow tall and stately; American elms were chosen for many of these avenues.  By assigning a particular tree to a specific fallen soldier, usually by means of a small plaque, an additional depth of symbolism could be imparted to the avenue. In some cases, the next-of-kin was involved in purchasing the tree and/or plaque for the deceased soldier. The avenue thus became both a personal and community memorial.
Roads of Remembrance were based on two symbol-laden images. The first was France’s tree-lined country avenues: Winnipeg’s memorial avenue of elms at the Manitoba Agricultural College was intended to be “a far-off reminder of the long straight tree-lined roads of France down which young men from [the college] had marched in their rendezvous with death.”  A Saskatoon veteran described them as “long straight roads, with large elms on either side, beautiful and useful, and loved by the Canadians overseas.”  The idea for Victoria’s avenue of trees was “to form a highway copied from one of the famous roads of France,” and was originally proposed to be named “Mons.” 
The second symbol was a living memorial: trees represented the victory of life over death. On the battlefields of Europe the image was arresting: the broken, fallen, and amputated trees seemed “to turn to the warming rays of the rising sun as if new life would grow because of its healing light.”  In North America, memorial trees became living symbols of the sacrifices made in France and Belgium.
Treed memorial avenues were promoted in Canada, Britain, and the United States as useful, beautiful, and lasting memorials, and low in cost. The American Civic Association asked, “If your community cannot afford to erect a high-grade architectural or sculptural memorial, would you not approve of having something more simple yet excellent of its kind, such as an avenue of trees ...?”  Their appropriateness in Canada was extolled in the Canadian Municipal Journal in 1922: “Future generations of Canadians will be reminded of the part that Canada played in the world’s fight for democracy against bureaucracy, not in ornate stone but in nature’s noblest gift to her people—the gift of trees such as no other country has.” 
In Britain, a pamphlet entitled “Roads of Remembrance as War Memorials” was issued by the office of the King’s Highway. The programme’s two objectives were to trans-form “suitable existing highways to the dignity of Roads of Remembrance, adorned with trees,” and to organize “the building of highways of exceptional dignity and beauty, with open spaces at intervals, as special memorials of the Great War.”  Trees, fountains, lamps, etc., could commemorate individual heroes.
In the United States, after the Great War, there was wide public support for planting trees along highways. One motivation was the reforestation and highway beautification effort being promoted at the time; another was the “Good Roads” movement.  The most significant, though, appears to have been the agitation for road side trees as memorials to the soldiers of the World War.  The effect the orderly and attractive roadways in France had on American soldiers who served there was considered to be a major factor in focusing attention on this particular form of beautification.
The American Legion approved, and adopted the planting of memorial trees as a national policy. The Daughters of the American Revolution, the Grand Army of the Republic, and other organizations were also behind this movement, and the press was favourable to it.  Many states took up the idea. In Maryland, for example, it was proposed to honour not only those who gave their lives, but all residents of the state who served. F. W. Besley, in a Good Roads magazine article, envisioned that, “if the plan is carried out as proposed, there will be a tree named for each man and woman who served in the Army, the Navy, the Red Cross and other auxiliary organizations.” 
The concept apparently made its way to Canada through the efforts of Mrs. M.H. Morrison of Devonshire, who was associated with the International Congress of Women and an ardent supporter of the Roads of Remembrance movement. Her agency sent far and wide the suggestion that avenues of memorial trees be planted (preferably by relations or friends) to the war’s fallen. Through Mrs. Morrison’s acquaintance with Major Arthur Haggard, founder of Britain’s Veterans’ Association in 1915 and Roads of Remembrance committee member, information on the movement and a request for help was sent to Haggard’s sister, the Baroness d’Anethan, in Victoria.
The Colonist, in reporting the story in October 1918, noted that the Daughters of the Empire and other patriotic organizations had been considering memorials, and suggested that a Road of Remembrance might be adopted.  Less than three weeks later a boulevard of memorial trees was proposed for Victoria . The concept seems to have circulated nationally through civic and philanthropic groups, including the Women’s Canadian Clubs, Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, Great War Veterans Association, British Empire Service League, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, chambers of commerce, and the Good Roads associations.
The prototype for a Canadian avenue of memorial trees may have been along Vinning Street in front of the high school in Victoria, B.C. During a ceremony on 20 April 1917, the second anniversary of the Battle of Ypres, 14 maple saplings donated by the Women’s Canadian Club were planted as a tribute to the school’s students and teachers who had died overseas.  The first known attempt to create a major First World War Road of Remembrance was on Shelbourne Street in Victoria and Saanich, B.C. In November 1918 businessman Thomas Walker suggested an avenue of trees (a double row of maples) along Shelbourne Street, Victoria’s “finest country thoroughfare, right out to Mount Douglas Park.”  The Chamber of Commerce promoted the concept,  and on 4 October 1921, 5,000 attended the dedication of this “Memorial Avenue” to B.C.’s war heroes.  A section of the street was planted with London plane and American mountain ash trees alternating every 30 feet, the faster-growing ashes to be removed when the plane trees matured. The intent was to plant a tree for each British Columbia soldier who lost his life in the Great War and embed a name plate in the base of each tree. 
Other cities quickly picked up on the idea. The Calgary Parks Department in its annual report for 1919 referred to a local movement to plant memorial trees.  While recommending a park for the purpose, it otherwise outlined features found in a Road of Remembrance, including dedication of the trees, individual plaques, and involvement of the next-of-kin. Council chose to place the trees along a section of an existing boulevard on the north bank of the Bow River between Centre Street and St. George’s Island bridge. The first poplar tree was planted by the mayor on Arbor Day, 10 May 1922.  Nine hundred trees were planted the first year, many sponsored by city service groups and clubs as well as next-of-kin. By 1927, approximately 1,700 trees had been planted three rows deep along Calgary’s Memorial Drive. 
A Montreal Road of Remembrance was launched when the Montreal Women’s Club approached city council in January 1922 with a proposal to transform one of Montreal’s “more or less treeless highways.”  A section of Sherbrooke Street West between Montreal West and Westmount (Notre-Dame-de-Grace) was chosen, with the intention of eventually extending the planting programme along the entire length of the street. Norway maples were selected, each to be plaqued and protected with an iron grille. In the three months preceding the dedication ceremony the Club received orders for 500 trees from families and friends of fallen soldiers, service clubs, and other groups.  On 22 April 1922 the first four trees were planted,  some 880 memorial trees eventually lined the street. 
In Saskatoon, the push for a Road of Remembrance originated with the Military Chapter of the local Independent Order Daughters of the Empire. In a letter dated 10 May 1922, Arbor Day, the chapter commended the city on its tree planting program, and suggested that they might follow the example of “so many larger cities, and plant a memorial avenue.”  The city council endorsed the plan on 19 June and turned it over to the Parks Board and a special committee appointed by the I.O.D.E.  City staff developed a plan for the avenue, the former Third Avenue between 33rd Street and the cemetery entrance, a distance of approximately 600 metres. On 17 June 1923 the first American elms on Next-of-Kin Memorial Avenue were dedicated in a formal ceremony before 8,000 rain-soaked spectators. 
It was not until 1923 that a treed memorial avenue was created in Winnipeg. Chancellor Matheson Road in Fort Garry was planted with 200 American saplings on 14 May, Arbor Day, as a mile-long “memorial avenue of elms” from the Manitoba Agricultural College (now University of Manitoba) Administration Building to Pembina Highway. Teams of planters comprised of graduates, staff, and current students of the college plus personnel from the provincial agricultural department undertook the work. The concept, “a happy thought conceived in the mind of some member of the Memorial committee, was that living, growing trees were a better way to perpetuate the memory of the students and staff who had made the supreme sacrifice than “deathlike white marble.”  The avenue of elms was dedicated before 500 onlookers, including Premier Bracken, in summer-like weather on 11 November 1923. 
The Winnipeg memorial avenue was not a true Road of Remembrance, since it never had individual plaques on the trees—a nearby stone memorial of British Columbia granite, unveiled by Brigadier-General Hugh M. Dyer, chairman of the college’s Board of Directors, carries the names of the 52 deceased. About a dozen trees were moved to the campus quadrangle in 1969; many more have since been removed in a bid to slow the spread of Dutch elm disease. Today, 55 percent are replacements (80 percent on the north side of the avenue). The trees still form a prominent feature on the adjacent agrarian landscape, but their condition is poor.
There are a large number of “memorial” avenues, boulevards, crescents, and like-named roadways across Canada, but most are not Roads of Remembrances with stately trees, individual plaques, and next-of-kin involvement; many are not even related to the First World War. A number of avenues can be found in Manitoba communities, including Brandon, Dauphin, Russell, Ste. Rose du Lac, Hazelridge, and Winnipeg. Typical of the smaller communities is Russell, where a memorial monument was unveiled in June 1922 at the intersection of Memorial Avenue and Assiniboine Street. Probably the best known in the province is Winnipeg’s Memorial Boulevard, near the Legislative Building. It has a broad median which features a conventional monument to the city’s fallen First World War soldiers, a cenotaph.
A memorial committee had been formed to create a sculpted monument for the city in 1924.  A panel of nationally-respected architects and artists was struck, and they reviewed 47 submissions before choosing Toronto sculptor Emmanuel Hahn’s entry. A furore arose when the German-Canadian heritage of this Canadian-trained sculptor was publicized, and his commission was dropped. After a lengthy delay, another competition was opened in 1927, with the stipulation that only native-born Canadians or Allied nationals be considered. The judges unanimously chose Canadian-born Elizabeth Wyn Wood’s entry. When it was revealed that she was Mrs. Emmanuel Hahn, and that her design included a nude male figure, her commission was passed over in favour of a Winnipeg sculptor, the English-born Gilbert Parfitt. His completed cenotaph on Memorial Boulevard was unveiled on 7 November 1928.
Two late examples of treed memorial avenues were created in Thunder Bay and North Bay, Ontario. Memorial Avenue in Thunder Bay, today a major highway between Port Arthur and Fort William, was once a country road lined with laurel leaf willows, but never had individual plaques to the fallen. It was conceived in the spring of 1925 when the Port Arthur Rotary Club decided to plant a row of memorial trees along the main thoroughfare from Port Arthur to Fort William. The first tree was planted in June 1926 and the road was officially renamed Memorial Avenue.  On 11 November 1936 the Rotary Club erected a large plaque on Memorial Avenue south of Queen Street to acknowledge that the trees had been planted in grateful remembrance by the Rotary Club of Port Arthur in cooperation with the City of Port Arthur. 
In 1928, the North Bay Canadian Legion requested that the name of a short street, Kennedy Avenue, be changed to Memorial Drive. City council passed a resolution to that effect in September of that year.  The British Empire Service League obtained permission to plant elm trees along the drive, each with a bronze plaque commemorating a fallen soldier.  As in other cities with Roads of Remembrance, the plaques were provided by the families of the servicemen. 
All these treed avenues, particularly the Roads of Remembrance, were highly symbolic memorials to a tragic chapter in Canadian history. “A beautiful avenue of trees,” said the Saskatoon Daily Phoenix, was a more fitting symbol than a traditional stone monument of “the eternal victory of life over death, refreshing the eye and the soul of the grateful wayfarer.”  While it was clearly a community memorial, a Road of Remembrance was also a very personal commemoration of a type that could not be duplicated in a committee-developed stone monument. Each tree belonged to a fallen soldier, and therefore to his family; in a symbolic way the soldier lived on as the tree grew and flourished.
In the end, living memorials—like soldiers—will eventually die. Some memorial trees have already succumbed to old age or disease: the memorial drive in North Bay no longer has any memorial trees, losing them to Dutch elm disease, and the same affliction has substantially diminished Winnipeg’s Chancellor Matheson Road. Thunder Bay’s trees were lost not to disease but to the exigencies of commerce. Even so, for these roads at least, the memory of their origins lives on.
The same cannot be said for Montreal’s Road of Remembrance on Sherbrooke Street West, a largely forgotten piece of local history, its plaques and almost all its trees long since removed. Calgary’s Memorial Drive, extended and widened into a major cross-city route, has also lost some of its meaning, many of its trees, and all of its plaques. Even the Shelbourne Street memorial avenue in Victoria and Saanich — which was never completed — has lost some of its country character, and the few plaques which were installed have apparently disappeared. Only Saskatoon’s Memorial Avenue has retained its integrity. Commemorative trees are still being planted in the nearby cemetery, and appropriate ceremonies are still undertaken at regular intervals.
In Saskatoon one may still experience the full power, dignity, and life of a Road of Remembrance. The power of a Road of Remembrance is to present, in a green and leafy memorial to circumstances of violence and aggression, the full irony of the Great War. Its dignity is to validate those for whom world events were no more—or less—than monstrous family tragedies. And in each tree’s living form is a solitary man who died “that those behind might live.”
I would like to acknowledge the role of my colleague Fern Graham in co-writing the original version of this research paper for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
3. American elms were considered by C. A. Reed, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, to be “the loveliest tree in all eastern North America.” Reed nevertheless made a strong case for the black walnut as a memorial tree: almost all First World War gun stocks were made of black walnut, and walnut shells were used in the making of carbon for gas masks. C. A. Reed, “Useful Trees for Highway Planting,” Good Roads, vol. 61, no. 14 (5 October 1921), p. 173.
10. “‘Roads of Remembrance as War Memorials,’ Reproduced from ‘The King’s Highway,’ and, by the generosity of the Editor, circulated for the Roads of Remembrance Association, 47 Victoria Street, London, S.W.1,” . British Library, 20033. C. 13.
11. Good Roads magazine, founded in January 1892, was the organ of this movement for better roads in the United States and Canada; the Ontario Good Roads Association was formed about 1902, and the Canadian Good Roads Association about 1914.
17. Peter L. Smith, Come and Give a Cheer! One Hundred Years of Victoria High School, 1876-1976 (Victoria, B.C.: Victoria High School Centennial Celebrations Committee, 1976), pp. 70-71. One tree was dedicated specifically to Jack Dowler; thirteen of the maples survive today. Molly Thompson of the Victoria Heritage Tree Project drew my attention to this short avenue of memorial trees.
18. “Boulevard to Park as a War Memorial,” Victoria Daily Times, 13 November 1918, p. 5; “Highway is Most Suitable Memorial,” 18 November 1918, p. 8; “Would Dedicate Mt. Tolmie Summit,” 19 November 1918, p. 11.
21. “Personals and General News,” I.O.D.E. Echoes, no. 86 (October 1921), p. 59. Planting went slowly, and on 25 September 1935 it was proposed that Memorial Avenue consist only of the part of Shelbourne Street north of Cedar Hill Cross Road. There is no further record of efforts to complete the avenue. About 350 trees had been planted, many protected by wrought iron guards, some with plaques attached. By 1961 only two plaques remained. Parts of the well-travelled avenue are still heavily treed, with the largest trees from Hillside Avenue to Haultain Street, but the tree guards and plaques are not believed to have survived. In 1976 a single large memorial plaque was erected near Mount Douglas by the Heritage Tree Committee of the Victoria Horticultural Society.
24. City of Calgary Archives. Calgary Parks Department Annual Reports, 1923-1927, passim. Planting during the next few years was supervised by a committee comprised of representatives from the Board of Trade, the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, and various horticultural societies. The trees were cultivated and maintained by the Kiwanis Club. The original motive for planting the trees was forgotten for a number of years as the plaques were stolen or lost. When the city attempted to change the name of Memorial Drive during the late 1950s and early 1960s the Legion protested strenuously and successfully, bringing back to public memory the origins of the trees. Pressures of urban transportation demanded that the road be widened during the 1970s. Although the city promised to replace destroyed memorial trees with mature specimens, many were not. The trees that remain still constitute a prominent feature of the road, now a major access route to downtown, but the plaques have disappeared altogether. A stone arch was erected in 1985 to replace the individual memorial plaques.
28. Montreal City Archives. Letter, Alderman James Donnelly to the City Clerk, Montreal, 31 March 1929 (ref. no. R3814). By 1939 about half of the trees had been lost to development, vandalism, or public indifference. After struggling for 17 years to maintain the trees, the Club, with the support of the Remembrance Branch (No. 75) of the Canadian Legion, suggested the memorial be moved to a more suitable location. As a result, Shakespeare Road, beside the Cimetiere Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, was renamed Remembrance Road and dedicated in a tree planting ceremony on 11 November 1939. In 1961 the Remembrance Branch collected 459 surviving plaques, had them rebronzed, and mounted them on a wall at their office on St. Catherine Street. They were later stored at the Legion’s provincial command, only to perish in a fire about 1986. Almost nothing remains on Sherbrooke Street West to suggest its former role as a Road of Remembrance. More than any other treed memorial avenue, the fact of its existence—and its significance—has disappeared from the public memory.
31. “History of Memorial Avenue,” an unsigned, undated typescript document in the Memorial Avenue file at the Saskatoon Public Library. In 1923, city council passed a resolution to replace any memorial tree that died, and a certificate of perpetual care by the city was issued to each of the next-of-kin. Planting and dedication of the trees continued into the cemetery and along the other roadways through it. On 23 August 1942, 42 new trees were dedicated to casualties of World War II. The I.O.D.E. continued to co-ordinate the planting of new trees until 1986, when responsibility was transferred to the city. At the present time there are 1,219 memorial trees, 112 of which are along Next-of-Kin Memorial Avenue from 33rd Street to the cemetery gates (one damaged original tree was replaced about 1985). Some of the newer trees within the cemetery grounds are dedicated to veterans who died long after their active service ended. This has broadened the scope of the memorial to acknowledge service as well as sacrifice.
33. See “Order of Service at the Unveiling and Dedication of the Memorial to the men from M.A.C., who laid down their lives in the Great War. Manitoba Agricultural College, Sunday, November 11th, 3 p.m., 1923,” in President’s Papers, UA 20, Box 5 folder 14, Department of Archives and Special Collections, University of Manitoba Libraries.
35. Thunder Bay City Archives. City of Port Arthur Council Minutes, 28 June 1926, Resolution 8525, p.2650; and letter, James T. Angus, District Governor, Rotary International District 5580, Thunder Bay, to Gordon Fulton, 30 June 1992.
36. “Rotary Club Commemorates Gesture in Memory of Great War Dead,” The Port Arthur News-Chronicle,14 November 1936. Gradual widening of the roadway began in the 1950s, and by 1978 only 30 trees remained and the large plaque had disappeared. None of the original trees is believed to stand today. Memorial Avenue was rededicated and a replica of the original plaque was reinstated in May 1991, the 75th anniversary of the Rotary Club.
39. Children riding by on their bicycles made a game of tearing off the plaques, which a local resident would retrieve and replace. Some plaques were eventually taken back by the families, and others were stolen. The trees ultimately succumbed to Dutch elm disease. The remaining plaques were removed and mounted on a memorial wall in a parkbeside the new Legion Hall some distance away and rededicated in 1982. No attempt was made to re-establish the original appearance of Memorial Drive, though it retains the name and has been extended as a parkway through the city’s waterfront redevelopment.
Page revised: 26 September 2012Back to top of page