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Cultural memory and Canada Day: remembering and forgetting

By Eleanor Ty


Canada Day (Fête du Canada) is the holiday that suggests summer in all its glory for most Canadians — fireworks, parades, free outdoor concerts, camping, cottage getaways, beer, barbeques, and a few speeches by majors or prime ministers. For children, it is the end of a school year and the beginning of two months of summer vacation. For adults, it is a day off work, often a long week-end to catch up on gardening, getting together with family and friends, and relaxing. We wave flags, dress in red and white, and say happy birthday to Canada. After six months of complaining about the snow and the cold, we complain about the heat and mosquitoes.

Historically however, 1 July 1867 marked a more regional rather than national event. The occasion commemorates the joining of the British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada (later to become Ontario and Quebec). Canada became a dominion of the British empire, and remained linked to Britain until 1982 when Canada became an independent nation, and when the holiday was renamed (from Dominion Day).

Unlike our US counterparts who find many occasions to show their patriotism, Canadians are more restrained in their expression of their love for their country. We become fiercely “Canadian” during the Olympics, when our writers (usually named Alice or Margaret) win Literary prizes, and when our hockey teams win the Stanley Cup. Our national holidays are still based mainly on the Christian calendar (Good Friday, Easter, Christmas), or else reveal the vestiges of our British heritage (Victoria Day). Canada Day is one of the few days we allow ourselves to indulge in national and civic pride.

Happy Canada Day! Photo by Ian Muttoo. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Happy Canada Day! Photo by Ian Muttoo. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

However, Canada Day evokes different feelings for different people. Feminist activist Judy Rebick, who supported the “Idle No More” movement last year, reminds us that the British North America Act signed on 1 July was “based on the annihilation of most and marginalization of the rest of First Nations.” She says that she does not celebrate Canada Day and never has. Similarly, in a witty and ironic piece that satirizes the inadequacy of the reparations that have been made to First Nations and aboriginal people, playwright and filmmaker Drew Hayden Taylor writes a list of apologies (following the style of Stephen Harper who apologized to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis for the imposition and effects of the residential school system). Hayden Taylor’s tongue-in-cheek apologies include occupying land that “one day, your people would want” and for not staying in “India, where we were originally thought to have come from.” For Chinese Canadians, 1 July is remembered as “Humiliation Day” because in it was on this day in 1923 that the Chinese Immigration Act was enacted. This act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, banned Chinese immigration to Canada until it was repealed in 1947.

The point is that what we celebrate as a nation– the history, the symbols, the rituals, and the food—is selective. When we talk about the past, it is not necessarily about what happened, but the bits and pieces that we choose to remember, highlight, and to commemorate. It is significant that in 2012 Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose to highlight the War of 1812 as a “seminal event in the making of our great country” which he conveniently reconfigures as a “war that saw Aboriginal peoples, local and volunteer militias, and English and French-speaking regiments fight together to save Canada from American invasion.” Harper chooses not to talk about the dispossession of First Nations people from their lands, British administrators’ view of them as dependents and impediments to expansion at that time, but instead, embraces them in his inclusive, revisionary history.

Recent interest in memory, preservation, and heritage have made us become more aware of how history has been presented to us, to the ways our relationship with the past have been mediated by literature, films, images, and national commemorations. The “idea” of Canada can be seen as a consciously constructed culture of memory since its foundations. For example, Kimberly Mair looks at the way the ordering and spatial distribution of objects in a museum neutralizes the colonial and genocidal aspects of aboriginal history for visitors, while Shelley Hulan searches for references to First Nations in the stories of Alice Munro. Doris Wolf and Robyn Green look at works that challenge old ideas of Canada as a settler nation by focusing on the experiences of aboriginal peoples in residential schools.

Other fascinating aspects of memory are trauma and forgetting. Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out that although history is important, the ability to forget is a necessary part of happiness: “He would cannot sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past, who cannot stand balanced like a goddess of victory, without growing dizzy and afraid, will never know what happiness is – worse, he will never do anything to make others happy.” Recently, Canadian diasporic authors such as Madeleine Thien, David Chariandy, Dionne Brand, and Esi Edugyan reveal what it means to be haunted by their past in a globalized age. By paying attention to how we remember, the roles played by literary and cultural representations in constructing our memories, we see how the present is not only influenced by the past, but how the present continues to rework and reshape our understanding of the past.

Eleanor Ty (鄭 綺 寧) is Professor of English & Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. She has published on Asian North American and on 18th Century literature. Author of Unfastened: Globality and Asian North American Narratives (U of Minnesota P, 2010), The Politics of the Visible in Asian North American Narratives (U Toronto P 2004), she has co-edited with Russell J.A. Kilbourn, The Memory Effect: The Remediation of Memory in Literature and Film (Wilfrid Laurier UP 2013), with Christl Verduyn a collection of essays, Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography (Wilfrid Laurier UP 2008). With Cynthia Sugars, she has co-edited Canadian Literature and Cultural Memory.

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One Response to “Cultural memory and Canada Day: remembering and forgetting”
  1. diggerjohn99 says:

    I have never met a single Canadian who does NOT celebrate Canada Day in some way. I think the author overstates the import of a tiny minority of radicals.

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