Dispatches

From Dominion Day to Canada Day, there’s a long history of ambivalence

Canada Day came about 40 years ago thanks to 13 MPs pulling a fast one on their colleagues.

A woman adjusts her hat while celebrating Canada Day along the lake shore in Toronto on July 1, 2020. Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press.

You may imagine that Canada Day came about due to a rich parliamentary debate, a national conversation about the country’s history and stirring speeches about how best to celebrate the anniversary of our nation’s birth.

In fact, it came about 40 years ago thanks to 13 MPs pulling a fast one on their colleagues.

On a sleepy Friday afternoon in July, Liberal MPs noticed that opposition MPs were slow to arrive for Private Members’ Hour. Some Liberal MP — nobody knows who — had a stroke of procedural genius.

Since 1879, Canadians had been celebrating the birth of their nation on July 1 under the name of Dominion Day, but a private member’s bill aimed to change the name to Canada Day. While the Tories dragged their heels as they arrived in the chamber, the Liberals blew the dust off their colleague’s bill and commenced a flurry of parliamentary activity.

Although the bill that had been given first reading two years prior, second and third reading happened in a matter of five minutes. Before the bewildered Tories even knew what had happend, the bill had passed.

There were some meek objections, including the argument that the Liberal MPs had no right to vote on the bill with only 13 MPs present and no quorum to speak of, but since no one had called for an official count, the objections fell on deaf ears.

Then, in the rich tradition of parliamentarians, the MPs gave themselves the rest of the day off.

“It is only appropriate that, in celebrating our new holiday called Canada Day, we should at least take a holiday of 55 minutes this afternoon,” said New Democrat MP Mark Rose, according to a 2006 lament about Dominion Day in the Ottawa Citizen.

It was a sneaky parliamentary victory that would have delighted then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who, a week earlier on July 1, delivered a speech encouraging Canadians to imagine a new national identity based on bilingualism and constitutional patriation.

The bill that finally succeeded in changing Dominion Day to Canada Day was the last of dozens of such attempts and it represented a growing idea among some Canadians, including Trudeau’s government, that “dominion” indicated subordination to Britain. With colonialism growing more and more unfashionable and nationalism in Quebec reaching a fever pitch, the country’s identity was undergoing an uncomfortable examination and the shift to Canada Day was a natural extension of this.

Senators grumbled about the bill, but mustered nothing in the way of real resistance. One Liberal senator described the process as undignified and Alberta senator Ernest Manning noted there was zero demand from the public to change the name of Canada’s national celebration.

Another Tory senator predicted that the “famous five minutes” would live in infamy, although it’s hard to imagine Canada Day revellers feeling much in the way ambivalence about the parliamentary shenanigans that created the new holiday.

But In the wake of the discovery of umarked graves at the former sites of two residential schools and the expectation of many more to come, a new wave of ambivalence in the country may be growing. Calls to cancel Canada Day, which have been simmering for years, have broken into the mainstream.

Polling shows, though, that Canadians, and especially non-white Canadians, still consider Canada worth celebrating. A Leger poll commissioned by the National Post showed that 70 percent of non-white Canadians want to see the Canadian flag displayed more often around their community.

And we shouldn’t be surprised to see pockets of doubt and resistance scattered around the country because it is, after all, a long Canadian tradition.

Ornery Nova Scotians, who were mostly unenthused by the idea of joining Canada, defeated the bill to create the first Dominion Day because, for them, it was a “day of lamentation” not a day of celebration.

When Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, the day was already literally one of mourning. July 1 was a day to honour those who were killed in the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel in the First World War. Some Newfoundlanders couldn’t help but notice the symbolism after the hard-fought and controversial referendum to join the country.

In British Columbia, July 1 has always allowed for critiques of Canada as much as celebrations of it, both from the province as a whole and the communities within it.

Chinese and Japanese Canadians would organize floats in B.C.’s Dominion Day parades to remind people about their role in the province’s early days and Indigenous communities would take part in the celebration to “assert their identities and to contest assimilationist policies,” wrote Matthew Hayday and Raymond B. Blake in their book Celebrating Canada: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities.

B.C. used the day to “challenge federal policies and approaches to nationood that they found exlusionary,” the authors write.

In some sense, Dominion Day was always in the eye of the beholder, celebrated however best made sense to any particular community. This was partly because, up until the 1950s, the federal government took no particular interest in how people enjoyed the day. Dominion Day celebrations were a hodgepodge of local festivities until politicians in the Diefenbaker years began to understand the potential for national myth-making.

Canada Day celebrations began to take on some kind of standardized form in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was not an easy task for policymakers.

“Organizers struggled mightly to establish a tradition that would gain widespread acceptance from Canadians while not simply mimicking the U.S. model of nationalism and celebration that marked their national day,” wrote Hayday and Blake.

And although it appears that Canada Day celebrations will be going ahead full-steam this year, despite calls to cancel them, it’s not unheard of for the festivities to be cancelled. In 1976, all federal events except a citzenship ceremony were cancelled, wrote Hayday.

The reason? Budget cuts.

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