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


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.

How you feel about racism depends on where you live and who you vote for: Poll


About two-thirds of Canadians are confident that Canada is not a racist country, although the responses vary significantly between people of different age and partisan affiliation, according to a new poll from the Angus Reid Institute.

Young women are far more likely to agree that Canada is a racist country, with 54 percent of women aged 18 to 34 agreeing. Older men and women are the least likely to say they live in a racist country, with only 21 percent of men aged 55 and older agreeing with that statement.

Some of the starkest differences in opinion appear along partisan lines.

Majorities in the both the Green Party and NDP believe Canada is a racist country, with 55 and 54 percent agreeing with that statement, respectively. Only 18 percent of Conservative voters believe Canada is a racist country, while 38 percent of Liberal voters agree.

The divide on the issue was clear in dueling news conferences in Ottawa this week.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh warned against ignoring “the bad parts of our history,” while Conservative leader Erin O’Toole decried activists who are “always seeing the bad and never the good” in Canada.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he had mixed feelings about Canada Day, which he said is a good time to reflect on “what we are as a country,” according to the Canadian Press. Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said she would be taking the opportunity to wear an orange shirt on Canada Day as symbol of reconciliation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government will be two years old in the fall, which is about the usual expiry date for a minority Parliament, leading to speculation about an approaching election. The shocking discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Residential School last month and the likelihood of many more such discoveries, such as the remains of 751 children discovered Wednesday at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School, means these issues could be at the forefront of an election campaign.

In his speech to the Conservative caucus on Wednesday, O’Toole looked to position himself right in the middle of mainstream Canadian opinion, expressing horror at elements of the country’s past while making the case for an optimistic view of the future.

More than half of Bloc Quebecois voters said they felt cold toward Muslims.

“I’m concerned that injustices in our past, or in our present, are too often seized upon by a small group of activist voices who use it to attack the very idea of Canada itself,” said O’Toole.

The Angus Reid Institute poll shows that the percentage of Canadians who think diversity makes the country better is growing in lockstep with the size of Canada’s visible minority population.

In 1994, when less than 10 percent of Canadians were visible minorities, about 82 per cent of the country said diversity was a positive thing. Now, with about a quarter of the country identifying as a visible minority, 86 percent of Canadians say diversity makes the country a better place.

Many of the divides on these issues fall along geographical and partisan lines. For example, just 17 percent of people in British Columbia said they felt “cold” or “more cold than warm” towards Muslims in Canada. That number rises to 27 percent in Alberta, but it balloons to 37 percent in Quebec. In fact, more than half of Bloc Quebecois voters said they felt cold toward Muslims, which is 13 points higher than the Conservative Party, at 38 percent.

The Angus Reid Institute poll also found some variance on how Canadians view so-called “micro-aggressions.”

About 26 percent of Canadians consider it either racist or offensive to ask a non-white person where they were born. Forty percent of Canadians say it depends on the circumstances and 25 percent say there is nothing wrong with saying that.

Forty-one percent of Canadians say it is either racist or offensive to say “you speak good English” to someone with an accent, while 35 percent say it depends on the context and 23 percent say there is nothing wrong with saying that.

Canadians are far less accepting of imitating someone of a different ethnicity, with 70 percent saying it is racist or offensive, 24 percent saying it depends on circumstances and six percent saying there’s nothing wrong with it. According to the poll, Indigenous people are less likely to be offended by this, with 61 percent saying it’s either racist or offensive.

In general, women are more likely to find these things offensive compared to men. Eighty-one percent of women aged 18 to 34 say that imitating someone of a different ethnicity is racist or offensive compared to just 62 percent of men aged 18 to 34, who are the least likely to be offended.