A short history of Canada’s birthday celebrations

Photo courtesy of Canadian Museum of History, IMG2016-0201-0015-Dm

“On Canada Day we’re going to have to be physically distanced this year,” says Matthew Hayday, history professor at the University of Guelph. But considering the vastness of Canada even before the current COVID pandemic, “in a way we’re always experiencing a level of physical distancing from most other Canadians,” he adds.

“[But] frankly, Canada Day involves going outside and being with other people, whether it’s a barbecue at someone’s house or the gathering at Parliament Hill,” Hayday says.

Still felt British at first

Although Canada Day plans must be compromised this year because of COVID, it will not be the first time the national celebrations have faced obstacles.

And while Canada Day is taken seriously nowadays, it took a long time for Canadians to develop an appetite to celebrate their national pride. Confederation in 1867 made Canada into an autonomous part of the British Empire but, as Hayday points out, “Canadians thought of themselves as being British then and for decades thereafter.”

July 1 was not even called Canada Day until 1982 – before that it was called Dominion Day.

By the 50-year anniversary in 1917 the federal government finally planned national celebrations – which had to be postponed because the nation was at war.

“It was unthinkable to most English-speaking Canadians that you would not go to war with Britain as you were part of their broader empire,” explains Hayday.

A decade later, in 1927, Canada’s Diamond Jubilee was the occasion when the first major celebrations occurred. But that celebration in 1927 would be it for another three decades.

It would not be until the 1950s “when the role for the federal government really gets going, when they really start trying to foster a national identity,” adds Hayday.

Since then the government’s goal has been to create a sense of closeness between communities that span more than 5,000 kilometres from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Victoria, B.C. Over the past century, the government also harnessed the latest technologies – taking advantage of the CBC’s radio network, and later television, to reach nearly every Canadian between the Atlantic and Pacific.

This year, the Canada Day celebrations will be on-line rather than on the lawn.

Between 1958 and 1968, particularly for the Centennial in 1967, Canada Day celebrations were held on Parliament Hill. They typically included “a flag ceremony in the afternoon on the lawns of Parliament Hill and a sunset ceremony in the evenings, followed by a concert of military music and fireworks,” according to Library and Archives Canada spokesperson Amélie Desmarais.

Month-long celebrations would take place during the years from 1968 to 1979 (except in 1976 because of budget cuts). “The month was kicked off with a large multicultural celebration presented on Parliament Hill and broadcast on television across the country,” says Desmarais.

Celebrations began shifting away from large national broadcasts in the 1980s and began focusing more on local celebrations, as the federal government began allocating more money for community events.

“They tried to create the sense that what was happening in Guelph and Vancouver had something in common,” says Hayday. “There would be common elements; for example, no matter where you were in the country you would sing O Canada at noon.”

Canada Day begins to involve social justice

Cultural issues would begin coming to the forefront in the 1960s. A separatist movement was gaining steam in Quebec. After the 1976 election of the Parti Québécois under the charismatic René Lévesque, “It started a huge discussion – ‘will Canada survive the separatist scare?’” Hayday says. “So, the federal government was ready to use every tool in the tool kit that they could to do something big (for francophones) on Canada Day.”

Also, during the 1960s, new Canadians and visible minorities were being recognized as a bigger part of the national identity.

Although Indigenous culture was largely ignored for most Canada Day celebrations, it has gradually become a larger part of the discussion over the past 50 years. By the sesquicentennial anniversary in 2017, First Nations communities were much more heavily involved in the event, but not always as happy participants. Many Indigenous Canadians participated that year to protest the government’s history of colonialism and ongoing mistreatment of First Nations.

Canada Day 2020

Even though physical gatherings have had to be cancelled due to COVID, there will be many innovative ways for Canadians to make the most of this year’s circumstances. Online concerts will be streaming through Canadian Heritage’s Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter pages, as well as on CBC and Radio-Canada. The show will include musicians Paul Brandt (headlining an hour-long midday show), and a collaborative evening show including headliners Alanis Morrissette, Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan, Loud and The Sheepdogs.

Closer to home, the city of Surrey will host a virtual Canada Day celebration.

For more information, please visit: www.canada.ca/fr/patrimoine-canadien/campagnes/fete-canada.html