It’s a tradition going back 181 years and more. The captain of the first ship to make it to Montreal in the new year is awarded a gold-topped cane.
The idea goes back to the when the harbour commission was established in 1830. Montreal was already a long-established bustling port at the time but due to winter ice, was closed for several months of the year. During winter shops would slowly run out of goods, and contact with the rest of the world was in many ways basically cut off. Therefore first ship arriving in spring with its cargo of food and wines, fashions, news, and mail, was a cause of celebration. Depending on weather and ice conditions in the river, the first ship might not arrive until late March or April or even May.
The harbour commission decided to offer a prize to captains as a way to encourage them to come early to the city. At the time, 1840, it was a beaver pelt top hat. In 1880 it was decided that something more substantial was needed and came up with the idea of a gold headed cane with an additional gilded tip at the bottom, which would have been very fashionable at the time.
The cane became quite an honour for international ship captains and has continued ever since.
However, since 1964, icebreakers and a changing climate have meant that ice in the river and port is no longer the impediment it once was, and now the first ship of the year often arrives on January 1st, or within a day or so. Even so, the tradition of the gold cane award continues in a grand ceremony each year much to the delight of ship’s captains.