(Black Press Media files)

(Black Press Media files)

What’s in a name? How Canada’s national birthday as we know it came to be

This year marks the 140th anniversary of a public holiday honouring Confederation

Many hail July 1 as Canada Day, others may hearken back to when the nation’s birthday was labelled Dominion Day, and some may wish to ignore it altogether, just like those who refused to celebrate the country’s founding for the first dozen years of its existence.

No matter the approach, the official celebrations of Canada’s creation are arguably more controversial than many realize.

Matthew Hayday, a University of Guelph history professor who has studied the celebrations through the years, said squabbles over Canada’s birthday became mired in some of the hottest political issues in the country’s history and mirrored efforts to carve out a distinct national identity.

“Canada Day … is part of a broader continuum of symbolic ways in which our national identity is presented,” he said. “It’s this long-simmering controversy that has attracted interest, and where people care about it, they can care quite passionately.”

This year marks the 140th anniversary of a public holiday honouring Confederation, said Hayday, noting the festivities have evolved considerably from their earliest incarnations.

No official celebrations took place during the first 12 years of Canada’s existence, he said, due in part to Nova Scotia politicians who felt they had been forced into Confederation against their will and believed July 1 ought to be treated as “a day of lamentation.”

When Dominion Day was officially declared and made a public holiday in 1879, Hayday said it was done over the objections of a faction from British Columbia aggravated by the failure to complete a cross-country railroad.

The earliest Dominion Day gatherings were grassroots affairs, he said, noting the federal government had no hand in the festivities.

That did not change until 1958 when then-prime minister John Diefenbaker decided Ottawa should play a more direct part in the nation’s birthday.

At the time, Hayday said calls had already begun to abandon the name Dominion Day and replace it with one that better reflected Canada’s growing autonomy from the British government. But while Diefenbaker may have been in favour of honouring Canada’s formation, Hayday said he had no interest in weakening ties with its imperial past.

“From the end of the Second World War onwards, you had the Liberals doing things to subtly remove the word ‘dominion’ from various government institutions because ‘dominion’ was seen as being … a particularly British designation,” he said. “Diefenbaker was very pro-British, so celebrating Dominion Day was a way of celebrating that.”

The earliest government-sponsored celebrations were relatively modest, Hayday said, noting events grew more elaborate throughout the 1960s. The government of Lester B. Pearson began incorporating more bilingual elements into the festivities, he said.

ALSO READ: Canuck-themed restos give the world a taste of Canada, make expats feel at home

The tide turned again in the 1970s, he said, as government celebrations grew more subdued and were eventually cancelled altogether in 1976.

A shift in Canada’s political winds, however, re-energized efforts to commemorate Dominion Day when Quebec’s sovereigntist movement helped bring Rene Levesque to power later that year.

“There’s a sense of panic that goes through official Ottawa about what’s going to happen to national unity,” he said. “They decided they needed to do some big, massive show.”

A resulting four-hour broadcast, aired on nearly every television and radio station in the country, placed some Quebecois performers in the position of fending off criticism from residents who viewed them as betraying the separatist cause, he said.

Even as Dominion Day festivities evolved, several politicians lobbied to see its name changed to Canada Day. Hayday said numerous bills were tabled only to be defeated or die on the order paper without undergoing debate.

That changed in the summer of 1982, days after what would prove to be the final Dominion Day celebration.

Hayday said 13 members of Parliament remained in the House of Commons one July day and began debating a private members bill tabled by Quebec Liberal MP Hal Herbert.

“No one actually asked the Speaker of the House to verify that there was still quorum,” Hayday said. “Unless someone asks, it’s assumed that it still exists. But there was some doubt as to whether, in fact, there were enough members of Parliament in the House.”

Undaunted, the MPs held first, second and third reading in a single day. While the bill did receive Senate scrutiny later that summer, it encountered no significant hurdles and became law later that year.

The public holiday may now be officially known as Canada Day, but Hayday said changes to the federal festivities have been relatively subtle in recent years.

One notable addition is a more culturally sensitive inclusion of Indigenous traditions, he said.

Early performances featuring residential school students clad in kilts and playing bagpipes have been replaced by artists donning clothing of their choosing and performing in a variety of Indigenous languages.

Anthony Wilson-Smith, chief executive of Historica Canada, said the colourful history that has shaped modern Canada Day celebrations has enhanced the country’s sense of national identity.

Both he and Hayday acknowledge that many purists still prefer the Dominion Day concept, but Wilson-Smith is not among them.

“There’s a virtue to simplicity,” he said. ”The day is what it is — it’s the day we celebrate our country.”

ALSO READ: New Trudeau-Trump opioid plan helps rebuild frayed relations from trade talks

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Mandeep Grewal was gunned down outside an Abbotsford bank in October 2018. Police said a violent gang war to control drug-line territory was going on at that time. Drug charges have now been announced against seven people. (FILE PHOTO: John Morrow/Abbotsford News)
7 people face 38 charges related to gang drug activity in Abbotsford and Mission

Police say investigation began in 2018 into expansion of Brothers Keepers’ drug line

This vehicle is suspected of being involved in a suspicious incident on Friday (May 7) on Mouat Drive in Abbotsford.
Driver in Abbotsford tries to lure teen girl into his vehicle

Man tells 14-year-old that her mom sent him to pick her up

The map shows the number of COVID-19 cases for the week of April 25 to May 1. The darkest areas indicate communities with a daily average of more than 20 cases per 100,000 population. (BC Centre of Disease Control)
Surrey and Abbotsford battle for top COVID hotspot in Fraser Health

Two communities are among areas across province showing highest transmission

The new Tourism Harrison River Valley brand promotes tourism and local businesses across the District of Kent area, including Harrison Hot Springs, Agassiz, Harrison Mills and the surrounding First Nations communities. (Screenshot/Tourism Harrison River Valley)
VIDEO: New Tourism Harrison River Valley rebrand unveiled

New branding incorproates Harrison, Agassiz, Harrison Mills and area First Nations

Abbotsford school board trustee Phil Anderson has stepped down after sharing an offensive image on Facebook. (File photo)
Abbotsford trustee temporarily steps down after sharing post relating COVID masks to slavery

Phil Anderson to receive training after comparing wearing a mask to slavery on his Facebook page

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

Flags flown at half mast out front of Fraser Regional Correctional Centre for slain corrections officer Bikramdeep Randhawa. (Neil Corbett/ The News)
Public vigil and flying flags at half mast done to honour slain prison guard

Maple Ridge corrections officer Bikramdeep Randhawa, 29, is being remembered in a number of ways

A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start releasing neighbourhood-specific COVID numbers after data leak

Documents obtained by the Vancouver Sun show cases broken down by neighbourhoods

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix update B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, April 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count creeps up, seven more deaths

445 people in hospital, 157 in intensive care

Summerland’s positive test rate is much higher than surrounding local health areas, according to internal BC CDC documents. (BC CDC)
Summerland 3rd behind Surrey, Abbotsford in daily per capita COVID-19 cases

Interior Health is rolling out additional vaccine availability to the community

Amazon is pausing its Prime Day marketing event in Canada this year amid ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at its facilities in Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Amazon Prime Day halted in Canada due to COVID-19 outbreaks in warehouses

The event was postponed to protect the health and safety of employees and customers, the company says

Ally Thomas, 12, seen in an undated family handout photo, died on April 14 from a suspected overdose. Her family says they are frustrated more public supports weren't available when they tried to get her help. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Minister says suspected overdose death of 12-year-old pushing B.C. to ‘do better’

Minister Sheila Malcolmson of Mental Health and Addictions says the government is working ‘as hard as we can’ to build a system of care for youths

At this Highway 3 check point, police officers will be asking for identification from drivers, documentation regarding the driver’s name and address, and the purpose for the driver’s travel. (RCMP)
No fines handed out at 1st COVID-19 roadblock as checks move across B.C.

Cpl. Chris Manseau says a total of 127 vehicles were stopped at a roadblock in the Manning Park area

A spectator looks on as the Olympic Caldron is relit in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, February 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Small majority of B.C. residents in favour of a Vancouver 2030 Olympic bid: survey

A new survey shows a split over the possibility of public money being spent to organize and host the winter games

Most Read