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The history of Canada Day

Because they raise difficult questions about who we are and who we want to be, national holidays are contested. Can a single day ever contain the diversity and the contradictions inherent in a nation? Is there even a “we” and an “us”?

Canada Day is no exception. Celebrated on 1 July, it marks the anniversary of Confederation in 1867. For the longest time the holiday was known as Dominion Day, an occasion for cities and towns across the country to host picnics and excursions where people played games and local notables delivered earnest speeches. They touted Canada’s natural wealth and extolled the virtues of the British Empire, referring to Canada as the eldest daughter of the Empire and as the gem in the Crown. At the 1891 Dominion Day celebrations in Toronto, children waved maple leaves and sang “Rule Britannia.”

Despite the effort to fashion a “we,” there was never an “us.” After all, Quebec didn’t share English Canada’s enthusiasm for the Empire, making its Dominion Day celebrations more muted. Its national holiday was – and still is – 24 June, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. Meanwhile, in the interwar years, the Chinese community in British Columbia turned Dominion Day into Chinese Humiliation Day to highlight racist laws that restricted Chinese immigration to Canada and denied Chinese Canadians the right to vote.

After the Second World War, as the Empire ended and as Canada redefined itself along bilingual and multicultural lines, “dominion” took on new meanings. Against the backdrop of Quebec separatism and the assertion by Canadians who were neither French nor British that they too deserved a seat at the table, it now connoted Canada’s colonial status.

Nonsense, said a handful of historians. Dominion was a very Canadian word, referring to the Dominion of Canada. Inspired by Psalm 72 – “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea” – and carefully chosen by the Fathers of Confederation, it was a new title, unlike, say, Kingdom, a much older title. But as Lord Carnarvon explained to Queen Victoria, it conferred “dignity.”

Dignified or not, dominion was slowly erased from official nomenclature by successive governments. When the Dominion Bureau of Statistics was renamed Statistics Canada in 1971, one historian wondered if the government intended to remove dominion from the phone book. Ten years later, his suspicion was confirmed when the government of Pierre Trudeau re-named Canada’s national holiday.

The debate – in hindsight, a foregone conclusion – pitted old nationalists against new nationalists, or Red Ensign nationalists who emphasized Canada’s Britishness against Maple Leaf nationalists seeking to accommodate Canada’s bilingual and multicultural realities. Familiar arguments were rehashed. To its proponents, dominion had a rich history, while its Biblical origins were a statement of God’s omnipotence and a reminder of Canada’s status as a Christian country. But to its opponents, it had run its course. To quote one cabinet minister, “Canadians see themselves not as citizens of a Dominion – with its suggestion of control, dominance, and colonialism – but as citizens of a proud and independent nation.” Besides, he said, dominion can’t be easily translated into French. And with that, Parliament amended the Holidays Act in July 1982 to rename Dominion Day as Canada Day.

Like the statues coming down and the buildings being renamed, Dominion Day never stood a chance: although it could draw on the past, it couldn’t point to the future. Canada Day, however, was capacious, meaning different things to different people: freedom, tolerance, equality, diversity, and security. As one member of Parliament explained, “We are all minority groups. Canada is a nation of minorities.”

He was right, of course. But thinking about Canada Day in this moment of renewed focus on race and racism – when countless voices insist that Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter, when interactions between police and black people and indigenous people can go horribly wrong, and when politicians struggle to find the right note – I am reminded that “we” and “us” are elusive, if not impossible, and that some Canadians are more minority than other Canadians.

Featured Image Credit: ElasticComputeFarm

Recent Comments

  1. James

    Thank you, Prof. Wright. I wonder why this post doesn’t also mention FNIM peoples in the final paragraph—on a when many are dismissive of Canadian sovereignty in the face of colonial rule over Indigenous peoples.

    Still, a wonderful read.

  2. Andrew P Duffin

    In today’s New York Times, Tim Egan writes that “no country can last long without a shared narrative.” I’m not so sure about that. It seems to me, and as Don Wright suggests, we mostly just muddle through, creating narratives that only occasionally reflect reality.

  3. Simon Chinamula

    Proud of having had you as my supervisor, dear Prof. Wright. Keep up the excellent work.

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