Canada Day Celebration Frames Canadian Identity

This year’s event is about independence and reconnecting with the Royals

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Like most Canadians, U of G history professor Matthew Hayday enjoys the annual ritual of Canada Day fireworks. Photo by Dean Palmer

 

U of G history professor Matthew Hayday says Ottawa’s Canada Day celebration is a great way to celebrate being Canadian. But it’s also a party designed and orchestrated by federal politicians to send their own messages to citizens. With the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attending this year’s event on Parliament Hill, partygoers may witness the beginning of a new relationship ─ or the new look of an old relationship ─ with Britain’s royal family.

It won’t be the first time that British ties played a prominent role in our celebration of Canadian independence.  Hayday reminds us that July 1 was originally called Dominion Day. That’s the name Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was trying to honour back in 1958, shortly after he was elected. Diefenbaker was critical of the previous Liberal party’s attempts to distance Canada from British connections and symbols, and thought an enthusiastic celebration of Dominion Day might strengthen the ties.

It had been a holiday before that, of course, says Hayday, who researched the history of Ottawa’s Canada Day celebrations and has published several articles on the topic. His “Fireworks, Folk-dancing and Fostering a National Identity: The Politics of Canada Day,” appeared last June in the Canadian Historical Review.

Hayday’s scholarship deals primarily with issues of public policy, English-French relations, federalism and identity politics in Canada. He has also authored Bilingual Today, United Tomorrow: Official Languages in Education and Canadian Federalism, as well as a number of articles on language policy, commemoration and Canadian political history.

The anniversary of Confederation has been observed since 1868, and it has been a national holiday since 1879, but it hasn’t been a day off for everyone. Hayday says, “Parliament was actually in session on July 1 for many years.” Local communities often held picnics or sporting events to mark the day, but that was all.

Diefenbaker made it a big deal. His first event to celebrate Dominion Day was very formal, with a speech from the governor general, a carillon concert and military bands on Parliament Hill. The day ended with fireworks.

Over the years, the form of the event changed, says Hayday. “On the advice of Diefenbaker’s minister of citizenship and immigration, Ellen Fairclough, they began bringing in folk singers, dancers and other performers and turning the day into an event with more appeal for families and children.” The performers represented various ethnic communities but were generally people living close enough to Ottawa that they could be bused in.

Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who was working towards a lavish centennial celebration for Canada’s 100th birthday, sponsored a broader and more costly show, with acts from each province, as well as a mix of English and French performers. CBC-TV stations broadcast the show across the country.

Some of the acts would be a bit shocking to audiences today, Hayday says, such as the Cariboo Indian Girls Pipe Band brought in from British Columbia. These were First Nations girls from residential schools who dressed in plaid kilts and played bagpipes. They had been recommended by the school’s principal for the Dominion Day celebration as an example of “good” Indians who had become integrated into Canadian society.

After Centennial Year (1967), the productions became less lavish. The CBC vacillated in its willingness to broadcast the events, and provincial anniversaries sometimes overshadowed the national holiday. By 1976, all funding had been cancelled, and the only celebration of Dominion Day in Ottawa that year was the presentation of citizenship certificates.

“That fall, the Parti Québécois was elected, separatism was the topic of the day, and panic set in in Ottawa,” says Hayday. “The next year, the government threw millions of dollars at celebrations not only in Ottawa but in communities across Canada, and these were aired on every single TV channel in the country except for two in Quebec. It was a mega-spectacular show with stars like Buffy Ste. Marie, Anne Murray and Bruce Cockburn.” Despite efforts made to include Quebec artists and attract the French-speaking audience, Quebec newspapers described this as a desperate attempt by Ottawa to hold the country together.

By the early 1980s, after the referendum about whether Quebec should separate had failed, the funding was again scaled back.

The July 1 holiday was renamed Canada Day in a somewhat suspicious Friday-afternoon vote by Parliament in 1982. Hayday says: “While no one asked or checked, it is suggested that they didn’t have enough people present for quorum.” Since no one asked, the law stands, and we all celebrate Canada Day now. He adds that when he does talks on this topic, there’s usually someone in the audience who still clings to Dominion Day.

As the economy improved towards the end of the 1980s, so did the show. Hayday says there had always been some friction between the politicians who wanted to have their say and the performance organizers. This was resolved by having the politicians do their bit at noon, then turning the evening over to a huge show and party.

But just as before, the choice of performers says something about the message the government is trying to get across. “The Canada Day events are always bilingual,” says Hayday,” and they try to have French-speaking performers from places other than Quebec, such as New Brunswick or Saskatchewan, to counter the idea that Quebec is the only bastion of French-Canadian culture.”

Early celebrations focused on showcasing diversity and multiculturalism. By the late 1980s the focus was more on what Canadians have accomplished, especially if those accomplishments had been recognized internationally, although Hayday notes that the selection of these “achievers” always includes individuals from a variety of ethnic groups and First Nations.

“I think that’s part of our national insecurity complex,” he says. “We need to be patted on the back and told that we’re good.”

Although the event has largely been transformed since the Diefenbaker era from a ceremony that emphasized the past and tradition to one that celebrates the diverse face of modern Canada, Hayday observes that not all aspects of the federal celebrations are about reinvention. The speech by the governor general on Parliament Hill has been a long-standing feature of the ceremonies, and one that draws attention to Canada’s British connection.

Those connections will be front and centre this year with Prince William and Kate Middleton as special guests at Ottawa’s Canada Day party. Prime Minister Stephen Harper invited the royal couple to Canada last November when their engagement was announced.

Over the years, royal watchers have had multiple opportunities to see members of the House of Windsor at the July 1 event. In this respect, Prince William is following in his grandmother’s footsteps. Queen Elizabeth II has been part of Canada Day (and Dominion Day) events on several occasions, most recently in 2010 but also in 1959, 1967, 1973, 1990 and 1992.

Hayday, who lived in Ottawa as a graduate student, says he still goes often to the capital on July 1 to be part of the celebration. The recent showcasing of Canadian artists has helped make the massive Ottawa celebration more popular than ever.

“It’s taken on a life of its own now. It’s become less political and more patriotic. You even see more U.S.-style patriotism, with people painting maple leaves on their cheeks, wearing flags as capes and spontaneously singing the national anthem. You seldom see that anywhere except Canada Day in Ottawa.”

This year, however, he will be showing a little less overt patriotism. Hayday plans to spend Canada Day driving to Vermont, en route to see what a Fourth of July parade looks like in small-town U.S.A. Still, he says he might take his Canadian flag anyway, just in case.