Controversy over Canada Day is nothing new

75cbbe6eeabd0167825a8ee3a4973a8dThe Cariboo Indian Girls Pipe Band performed in Ottawa on July 1, 1965

As early as 1867 it had its champions and detractors

WAYNE K. SPEAR | JULY 1, 2021 • CANADA

THE BRITISH NORTH AMERICA ACT came into effect on July 1, 1867, establishing the Dominion of Canada under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick confederated, as did Nova Scotia, but with such opposition in the latter province that voters elected eighteen of the nineteen parliamentary seats held by a secessionist Anti-Confederate party. The theme of a reluctant union reprised in 1949, when a bankrupt Newfoundland under a caretaker government narrowly chose Canada, by an affirmative vote of fifty-two percent. Fully half of the four founding provinces of Canada have challenged Confederation at one time or another. One of them has yet to formally approve the 1982 Constitution Act amending and patriating its 1867 predecessor.

Dominion Day celebration was first advocated by the first Governor General of Canada, Charles Monck, an Anglo-Irish member of the peerage who established the tradition of the Governor General residing at Rideau Hall. Monck’s proposal to create a public holiday was met with hostility, especially in Nova Scotia, where July 1 was for many an occasion for lament. Owing to opposition, a Dominion Day bill introduced in May 1869 by the Barrie businessman and Member of Parliament Thomas McConkey was debated but withdrawn after the second reading. Ten years after this, Senator Robert Carrall sponsored a successful effort to establish Dominion Day as a federal statutory holiday, a designation which occurred on May 15, 1879.

Despite the establishment of a federal statutory holiday, Ottawa played no role in the festivities for the first forty-eight years. Celebration of Dominion Day was a local, informal affair in which village and town committees provisioned space and resources for sporting competitions, theatrical and musical performances, rounds of Quoits, pyrotechnic displays, and Calithumpian processions. An 1888 annual report of the Department of Indian Affairs contains this T.P. Wadsworth description of a Dominion Day on the Mistawasis reserve, west of Prince Albert:

A most pleasing gathering took place on Dominion Day, the agent and instructor invited the settlers and Indians of the agency to attend a picnic a most enjoyable day was spent by all, the amusements being similar to those provided for true entertainments in the east, namely, athletic sports, dancing, singing, speeches, & c. Mr. Chaffie furnished from his private means a fine fat steer and the agent and a few of the settlers provided another, these were killed, dressed, and eaten on the ground; delicacies were also provided – they all had a very enjoyable time, and it had a very good effect upon the Indians who said that it was better than a “sun dance.” It also showed them that they could have plenty of amusement without the “tom-tom.”

Wadsworth’s keenness to induce Mistawasis Nêhiyawak to the amusements of the empire (to say nothing of the implausible, smoke-up-the-arse reaction that he records — better than a sun dance!) reflects the broader assimilationist bent of turn-of-the-century Dominion Day celebrations, as immigration from Eastern Europe and Asia changed the country. The holiday became an occasion for organization committees to, as Robert Cupido puts it, “get at the mind of the foreigner.” Poems, plays, and processions emphasized the British character of Canada and the virtues of assimilation, as for example in parades featuring immigrant parents in Old World dress followed by their Anglicized children. Eventually there were protests and push-backs. Matters came to a head as a result of the head tax and the introduction, on Dominion Day in 1923, of the Chinese Immigration Act. After this, July 1st was known among Chinese Canadians as Humiliation Day.

In 1917, the fiftieth anniversary of Confederation, Canada was at war and the holiday was a lower priority. Ottawa undertook celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee in 1927, marking the first federally-organized observance of Dominion Day. These celebrations featured cross-country historical pageants, one of which was performed at Massey Hall in Toronto with a cast of six hundred children. In his coast-to-coast radio coverage of the day, broadcast from Parliament, Graham Spry described the Dominion of Canada (a phrase that persisted into the 1960s) as “one nation, two cultures; one nationality, two races; one loyalty, two tongues.”

Efforts to rename Dominion Day would not succeed until 1982, and then only by the questionable means of a vote undertaken by twelve MPs, but in 1946 Philéas Côté introduced an unsuccessful bill to rename Dominion Day what it eventually became: Canada Day. Côté also resurrected an 1864 Charlottetown Conference proposal to name the country the Kingdom of Canada, an idea declined by the British Colonial Office, in deference to American sensibilities. “Dominion under the Crown” was effectively London’s compromise.

Federally-sponsored annual Dominion Day celebrations were formally established only in 1958, by a Conservative government concerned with the Liberal trend of eliminating the word Dominion from the government vocabulary. Secretary of State Ellen Fairclough was tasked by Prime Minister Diefenbaker with fashioning Dominion Day celebrations, but even at a date as late as this, there was opposition.

In an article titled “Fireworks, Folk-dancing, and Fostering a National Identity: The Politics of Canada Day,” Matthew Hayday writes that a government official named William Measures “did not consider Canada to be a retrospective country, but rather a forward-looking one that was confident in its future.” Measures also raised concerns over the symbolic elements, noting that both the flag and anthem were unresolved. He furthermore took the view that government ceremonies to celebrate a national day were contrary to Canadian and Commonwealth tradition and unusual in British countries. Some people, he added, regard them as “evidence of national immaturity.”

Yet as Canada matured, Dominion and later Canada Day were larded with more significance, likely for reasons specified by Measures as having to do with confidence in the future. During the 1960s and 70s, celebration of the British empire yielded to displays of multiculturalism and concerns of national identity and national unity. In 1968 Pierre Trudeau became leader of the Liberal party having promised to frustrate the Quebec separatist movement and to unify Canada as a bilingual nation. The celebration of Dominion Day that year was overshadowed by the June 24 St-Jean-Baptiste Day riot, where Quebec separatists threw bottles and rocks at the Prime Minister and shouted “Trudeau to the stake.” Federal interest in Dominion Day reached a low point in the mid-70s, and in 1976 budget cuts cancelled Ottawa’s celebrations altogether.

As 1992 approached, a group of eminent persons was invited by the Secretary of State to an October 1989 Ottawa conference where ways to celebrate Canada’s 125th birthday would be discussed. In a CBC Morningside program covering the event, host Peter Gzowski noted that “no speech made a stronger impact than one that wasn’t celebratory at all.” Here Gzowksi was referring to a spontaneous eight-minute jeremiad by the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Georges Erasmus, later titled Nothing to Celebrate, which conveyed the feelings of many Indigenous people.

There is nothing new under the sun — and certainly not disagreement over a holiday that already in the 1860s had its champions and detractors. Today another Trudeau finds himself amidst another controversy over a Canada Day he has said should be a time of reflection. Still, for the great mass of Canadians, Canada Day has always been a time for recreation and casual entertainment rather than politics or history. Does anyone really expect a grassroots uptake either of cancellations (unless due to Covid-19) or Erin O’Toole’s weird call for a rededication programme? What matters is what happens when life returns on the day after Canada Day, and forward. ⌾

Read this article at the National Post.

Author: Wayne K. Spear

waynekspear.com