Olé! Canada’s first-ever bullfight 60 years ago was in Lindsay
A boisterous crowd gathers in the Plaza del Toro in a charming small town, awaiting in rapt anticipation the entrance of the magnificent bull Ferdinand and wonders what might become of Matador Jorge Louis Bernal. Who will win — man or beast? Will the bull be vanquished? Will the matador survive? A year of planning this ‘ballet in three acts’ by organizers in the small town has come down to these tense few minutes. Our scene is not set in some small Mexican pueblo. This bullring is constructed out of plywood and the setting is old Lindsay fairgrounds where almost 5,000 people have gathered to see Canada’s first bullfight. The year is 1958.
In addition of to being the stuff of local lore, the Lindsay Bullfight is a story of tourism promotion chutzpah, of coming up with a daring (some at the time said crazy) idea all for the purposes of putting the town — and by extension the whole area — ‘on the map.’ And it most certainly a story of organizational perseverance and determination.
Holding a large tourist event today seems to require money and cooperation from every level of government and it most certainly requires a buy-in from all the local stakeholders. This was most certainly not the case 60 years ago, when the Chamber of Commerce decided that Lindsay would hold an international festival featuring Canada’s first-ever bullfight.
The town wasn’t exactly bonded in civic unity over the event. At the time Lindsay had two local daily papers. The Lindsay Daily Post questioned on its front page whether the event was “a farce in the making.” The Watchman-Warder was as pro-bullfight as the Post was against, predicting in breathless prose “Canada’s Biggest Event.” In the months leading to the the event, the Post devoted noticeably small amounts of space questioning the spectacle as the Watchman-Warder extolled the event with 60-point headline type.
That a bullfight might not be suitable entertainment — given the possible suffering of animals — seemed as much of a matter of discussion then as it might be now. The provincial SPCA was dead set against it, and the event was starting to be debated at the provincial level. The Chamber countered by promoting a bloodless bullfight: “Pity the Matador, Not the Bull” became their slogan in response to the growing criticism.
Officially, the town council was not in favour of it and the Kiwanis Club of Lindsay was vocal in its opposition. And much to the consternation of the organizers, the Lindsay bullfight was being debated at Queen’s Park thanks in part to the SPCA’s loud disapproval.
The riding’s MPP at the time happened to be Premier of Ontario, Leslie Frost — a master of small-town politics. The Peterboro Review described Premier Frost as being on “the horns of a dilemma.”
“Everyone at home expects him to sanctify the ‘Big Show,’ The Peterboro Review continued. “But of course he can’t. His home town is split down the middle. Half want the bullfight. Half don’t. And both sides number many Conservative voters.”
Ever the deft politician, Frost handed the entire mess off to Attorney General Kelso Roberts to “wave the red flag” if necessary. Roberts ultimately allowed the fight to proceed but cautioned the Chamber in writing about the Criminal Code sections relating to animal cruelty and ‘unnecessary’ torture. Local lawyer, A.M. Fulton, a Kiwanis member, declared: “if it’s a fight it’s against the law….if it isn’t, it’s fake!”
Undeterred — and lead by such still-recognizable names as Bob Mark and Gord Mackey — the Chamber continued to plan for their Civic Holiday event, with an initial budget of $12,500 (over $105,000 in 2018 dollars.)
They say the best way to make God laugh is to have a plan and the Chamber definitely had a big plan. They purchased ‘rain’ insurance from Lloyd of London. They brought four matadors to Lindsay on July 22, to much local fanfare (depending of course which paper you read) but then disaster struck when the six bulls destined for Lindsay were quarantined at the US-Mexico border when a tick was found on one of the bulls. The event had to be postponed until the weekend of August 21-22, as costs mounted for the Chamber.
Tickets for the event ranged from $3 to $7 dollars ($26- $71 today) — a hefty sum given that Woolworth’s that week advertised a children’s suede coat for $4.97 and you could rent two bedrooms with a washroom in town for $25/month.
Mini-disasters were handled, and there were many, as they arose. Organizers found out an hour before the show that the female Matador who — who had said she was 21 — was in fact 20 and not legally capable of signing the contract which required new arrangements. Interest in the bulls, who by now had had a month’s vacation in the Kawarthas, grew so much that organizers had to hire security at Jim Burleigh’s farm because nightly visitors were showing up “inebriated” thinking they could challenge the bulls.
But the slightly scaled-down event finally happened. The calypso band (perhaps a bit off the mark of a Mexican-themed event, but definitely ‘international’ for 1958 Lindsay) and the announcer (full disclosure: my great uncle) warmed up the crowd. The crowd anxiously awaited the first bull…who did absolutely nothing. It could not be coaxed to fight. To the consternation of the five armed SPCA agents (sent to Lindsay to shoot the bulls if they were suffering) the crowd screamed “hamburger” and “kill it!”
The second bull refused to leave the ring after the ceremonial ‘kill.’ Every attempt to lure the bull out of the ring — including using a local Holstein failed. Lindsay Police Chief John Hunter took matters into his own hands and jumped in the ring and attempted to lasso the beast. The bull, now enraged smashed the Chief to the ground and then into the boards. The Toronto Telegraph reports that the crowd feared the worst: “He’s killed,’ was the cry. The Chief, though, walked away uninjured, crediting ‘the luck of the Irish’ to a Toronto paper. It is perhaps no wonder that many newspapers, when describing the organizers, included words like ‘harried,’ ‘ulcers,’ and ‘anxiety.’ Much to the organizers’ relief, the third and final bull ‘fought splendidly.’
The Watchmen-Warder noted that “Lindsay received more publicity and international attention than any place of its size in Canada.” The Post, in a large font gleefully declared “Report Bullfight Lost $9,000,” almost $80,000 today. It was, as the venerable Val Sears described in the Toronto Telegram, “the goldarndest bullfight that ever was.” The Canadian Press newswire said the the bulls provided a “comic touch.” Even the erudite Globe and Mail weighed in, wondering about the fate of bulls.
Like much of this story, it ended with humour. Jack Conway, publicity director for the bullfight told a local paper “Remember when you’re eating your bologna next week that you saw it fighting!”