The beginning of 2014 will mark a special historic event in Montreal: the 175th Gold-Headed Cane presentation ceremony.

Once upon a time, ships were the only means to connect Europe with Montreal. This link was disrupted, however, when the port closed every year during the winter because of ice. Renewed contact with Europe was marked by the arrival of the first transatlantic ship, usually during the month of April. “Montrealers would gather down at the wharves when word spread that the first ship of the season had been sighted,” said Sylvie Vachon, President and CEO of Montreal Port Authority. “They knew its holds carried food, mail and the latest fashions from Paris and London!”

In an effort to encourage European shipowners to establish regular links with Port of Montreal, and at the urging of the Montreal Board of Trade, the Harbour Commission decided to present a trophy to the very first ship of the year. Since 1840, a trophy has been awarded at the start of each navigation year to the master of the first vessel to cross the Port of Montreal’s limits, which today are located at Sorel. During the first forty years, the award was a top hat which, during that period, symbolized respectability, wealth, dignity and high social rank.

In the second half of the 19th century, the cane became an elegant accessory in gentlemen’s fashion, an inseparable complement to the black tailcoat and the frock coat. Many great jewellers, including Fabergé, Cartier and Tiffany and Co., made cane heads. The cane supplanted the top hat as the true distinguishing accessory of success in about 1880.

The presentation ceremony: a time-honoured tradition

Since 1840, 153 captains of ships registered in 24 different countries have won the award. Some have captured it more than once, including the first recipient, Captain John Swinburn, of Great Britain, who won the award five times between 1840 and 1845.

Today, this great maritime tradition lives on in an official presentation ceremony held during the first few days of January. The winning captain receives the Gold-Headed Cane, engraved with his name and the name of his ship, from Sylvie Vachon, President and CEO of Montreal Port Authority. The event binds us to past and present generations, and it echoes the bygone era when ice in the St. Lawrence River sealed Montreal from the rest of the world during the winter months.

The ceremony allows us to salute and thank the entire maritime transportation industry involved in port activity in Montreal. In addition to honouring the winning captain, it is a reminder that the port is a catalyst for economic development for the city and the entire country, a driver of business growth for its clients, and a facilitator of supply chain performance for its partners.