What Happened on May 20 in Canadian History?

by oaeen
1992 Charlottetown Accord Negotiations

May 20 holds a special place in Canadian history, marked by significant events that have shaped the nation’s political, social, and cultural landscape. This date offers a rich tapestry of historical moments, from pivotal political milestones and legislative actions to groundbreaking achievements in science and culture. This article delves into the key events that occurred on May 20 in Canadian history, exploring their historical contexts and lasting impacts.

1536: Jacques Cartier’s Second Voyage to Canada

On May 20, 1536, French explorer Jacques Cartier set sail on his second voyage to Canada. Cartier’s expeditions were crucial in establishing French claims in the New World. During this voyage, he explored the St. Lawrence River, which would later become a vital artery for trade and settlement in New France.

Cartier’s exploration laid the groundwork for future French colonization in Canada. His interactions with Indigenous peoples, though often fraught with misunderstandings and conflict, opened a new chapter in the history of European-Indigenous relations in North America. The significance of Cartier’s voyages is reflected in his lasting legacy, as many Canadian geographical features and towns bear names derived from his expeditions.

1648: First Arrival of Jesuit Missionaries in Huronia

On May 20, 1648, Jesuit missionaries arrived in Huronia (present-day Ontario), aiming to convert the Huron-Wendat people to Christianity. This mission was part of a broader Jesuit effort to spread Christianity among Indigenous peoples in New France.

The Jesuits documented their experiences in the “Relations des Jésuites,” providing valuable ethnographic information about Indigenous cultures and societies. However, their presence also contributed to significant cultural disruption and conflict. The arrival of the Jesuits on May 20 is a reminder of the complex and often contentious interactions between European settlers and Indigenous peoples.

1732: Birth of Thomas Carleton

On May 20, 1732, Thomas Carleton, the first Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, was born. Carleton played a pivotal role in the early governance and development of New Brunswick after it became a separate colony in 1784.

Carleton’s leadership helped establish New Brunswick’s administrative framework and fostered its early growth. His efforts in promoting settlement and managing relations with both Indigenous peoples and Loyalist refugees from the American Revolution were crucial in shaping the colony’s future. Carleton’s birth on May 20 marks the advent of an influential figure in Canadian colonial history.

1882: Founding of Regina, Saskatchewan

On May 20, 1882, the city of Regina was officially established as the capital of the Northwest Territories, which later became the province of Saskatchewan. Regina was named in honor of Queen Victoria, reflecting Canada’s ties to the British monarchy.

Regina’s founding marked a significant moment in the westward expansion and development of Canada. The city played a central role in the settlement of the Canadian prairies and became a hub for agriculture and transportation. Today, Regina is not only the capital of Saskatchewan but also a center for cultural and economic activities in the province.

1914: Komagata Maru Incident

On May 20, 1914, the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, carrying 376 passengers from India, mostly Sikhs. The passengers were denied entry into Canada due to restrictive immigration policies designed to limit non-European immigration.

The Komagata Maru incident is a significant event in Canadian history, highlighting issues of racism and exclusionary immigration policies. The refusal to allow the passengers to disembark and the subsequent forced return of the ship to India had lasting implications for Canada’s immigration laws and policies. This incident remains a poignant reminder of the challenges and discrimination faced by early immigrants to Canada.

1932: Amelia Earhart’s Historic Flight

On May 20, 1932, Amelia Earhart took off from Newfoundland on her solo nonstop transatlantic flight, which concluded in Ireland. While this achievement is primarily associated with Earhart and American aviation history, it also holds significance for Canada, highlighting the country’s role as a starting point for transatlantic aviation.

Earhart’s flight demonstrated the strategic importance of Newfoundland in early aviation history, serving as a critical refueling and launching site for transatlantic flights. This historical event underscores Canada’s contribution to the advancement of global aviation.

1940: Formation of the National Film Board of Canada

On May 20, 1940, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) was established by an act of Parliament, with John Grierson as its first commissioner. The NFB was created to produce and distribute films that would promote Canadian culture and values during World War II and beyond.

The NFB has played a crucial role in documenting and shaping Canadian identity through film. Its establishment marked the beginning of a new era in Canadian cinema, fostering creativity and innovation. Over the decades, the NFB has produced numerous award-winning documentaries and animated films, contributing significantly to both national and international film heritage.

1963: Lester B. Pearson Becomes Prime Minister

On May 20, 1963, Lester B. Pearson was sworn in as the 14th Prime Minister of Canada. Pearson’s tenure is remembered for significant social and economic reforms, including the introduction of universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and the modern Canadian flag.

Pearson’s leadership during a transformative period in Canadian history left an indelible mark on the nation. His efforts to promote peace and international cooperation earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957, prior to his term as Prime Minister. His premiership, beginning on May 20, marks a period of progressive change and nation-building in Canada.

1980: Quebec Referendum on Sovereignty-Association

On May 20, 1980, Quebec held its first referendum on sovereignty-association, a proposal for the province to become politically independent while maintaining an economic association with Canada. The referendum was defeated, with approximately 60% of Quebecers voting against the proposal.

The 1980 referendum was a pivotal moment in Canadian history, highlighting the complexities of Quebec’s relationship with the rest of Canada. The outcome affirmed the desire of many Quebecers to remain part of Canada, but it also underscored the persistent issues of identity, language, and cultural distinctiveness within the province. The referendum’s legacy continues to influence Canadian politics and the ongoing debate over Quebec’s status.

1985: Supreme Court Decision on Section 15 of the Charter

On May 20, 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a landmark decision in the case of Andrews v. Law Society of British Columbia. This case was significant as it was the first time the Supreme Court interpreted Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equality rights.

The Andrews decision established a broad and purposive approach to equality under the Charter, setting a precedent for how discrimination cases would be evaluated in Canada. This ruling has had a profound impact on Canadian jurisprudence, advancing the protection of individual rights and shaping the landscape of equality law in Canada.

1992: Charlottetown Accord Negotiations

On May 20, 1992, federal and provincial leaders in Canada met to negotiate the Charlottetown Accord, a package of proposed constitutional reforms. The Accord aimed to address longstanding issues, including Quebec’s status, Indigenous self-government, and Senate reform.

Although the Charlottetown Accord was ultimately rejected in a national referendum later that year, the negotiations on May 20 represented a significant effort to achieve constitutional consensus and address the diverse needs of Canada’s federal structure. The failure of the Accord highlighted the challenges of constitutional reform and the complexities of balancing regional and national interests.

2012: Royal Canadian Mint Stops Production of the Penny

On May 20, 2012, the Royal Canadian Mint officially ceased the production of the penny, marking the end of a currency that had been in circulation since 1858. The decision to eliminate the penny was based on the cost of production exceeding its monetary value.

The end of the penny’s production was a symbolic moment in Canadian economic history, reflecting broader trends in monetary policy and the shift towards digital transactions. The decision underscored the need for efficiency and modernization in Canada’s currency system.

2016: Fort McMurray Wildfire

On May 20, 2016, the devastating wildfire that began in early May continued to ravage Fort McMurray, Alberta. The fire, which started on May 1, became one of the costliest natural disasters in Canadian history, leading to the evacuation of over 88,000 residents and causing extensive damage to homes and infrastructure.

The Fort McMurray wildfire highlighted the increasing risks of natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. The response to the disaster showcased the resilience of the affected communities and the importance of coordinated emergency management and support systems. The wildfire’s impact continues to influence policies on disaster preparedness and environmental protection in Canada.


May 20 is a date imbued with historical significance in Canadian history, encompassing a wide range of events that have shaped the nation and its people. From early explorations that paved the way for French and British colonization to significant political and social milestones, the events of May 20 reflect the diverse and dynamic nature of Canada’s development.

These historical milestones serve as reminders of the country’s journey towards progress, justice, and inclusivity. As we reflect on what happened on May 20 throughout Canadian history, we gain a deeper appreciation for the myriad ways in which this date has shaped the nation we live in today. The stories of exploration, resilience, innovation, and reform that mark May 20 continue to inspire and inform the ongoing journey of Canada and its people.

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