From “the infant-monster Confederation” to a Dominion that “thumps you in the heart”: National Unity and the Many Meanings of Canada Day

Confederation Medal, 1867

As cities and towns across the country prepare for fireworks and crowds this weekend, this 145th anniversary of Confederation once again calls into question the meaning of Canada Day and Canadian national identity. Toronto city councilor Doug Ford and his brother, Mayor Rob Ford recently mused on their weekly radio show about the need for a Canada Day parade. “We should be as patriotic as anything,” remarked Councilor Ford. “We should be having a Canada Day parade. We should have the troops going down with us waving the flags.” The Historica Dominion Institute suggests that its recent opinion poll reveals that Canadians “aren’t so shy about showing their pride.” These kind of calls for greater outpouring of patriotic fervor suggest a desire for Canada Day to be a unifying national holiday.

The anniversary of Confederation has, of course, never been a unifying day in this country. While the celebration of Confederation has obviously been contentious and controversial in Quebec among many French Canadians, the meaning of Confederation and its commemoration historically has also been divisive in other parts of the country since the 1860s.

On the first Dominion Day (as it was known until 1982), Nova Scotians were less than celebratory, to say the least. Confederation had been a highly controversial political issue in the Maritime colonies. Prince Edward Island initially rejected the proposed union with Canada and the populations of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were hardly enthusiastic boosters of the idea. In fact, Nova Scotia’s first provincial government, led by Joseph Howe, organized Canada’s first secessionist movement. This is perhaps why the Pictou County Advocate described the first Dominion Day as follows:

“So far as we can learn, the events of the natal day of the new dominion were not as remarkable as the Canadian Party wished them to be. On the whole, as a day of rejoicing, it was a failure; it was more worthy of being formed a day of humiliation. Doubtless in the latter sense it was regarded by many. In Pictou and New Glasgow, the display of flags by Confederates was meagre; and as an offset might be seen quite a number of flags upside down and half-mast, with several black permants, and a black flag. Only one or two stores were closed, and people appeared to attend to their business as usual. No church-bells were rung. no salutes were fired, no congratulations were offered on the birth of the “infant-monster Confederation;” those who rejoiced did so privately, not desiring to insult the body of their countrymen, who looked upon the day as a dark one for Nova Scotia.” [1]

The meaning of Confederation changed, however, over the remainder of the nineteenth century as the Dominion of Canada expanded its North American empire, annexing the Northwest in 1869-70, incorporating British Columbia and Prince Edward Island between 1871 and 1873, and finally acquiring imperial control over the Arctic archipelago in 1880. Within each new frontier of territorial expansion, new populations fell under the control of the federal government in Ottawa and suddenly became “Canadian.”

By 1921, following the extremely divisive years of the Great War, the Globe described Dominion Day as a somewhat muted occasion. “There is little or nothing in the way of a public celebration of Dominion Day in Canada,” noted the editorial for the 54th anniversary of the birth of the country, because “Canadians are an undemonstrative people so far as their own affairs are concerned.” This was hardly a lament. In fact, the Globe seemed to almost celebrate the modesty of the Canadian population, proudly proclaiming that “[w]e have no desire to advocate anything in the nature of fuss and fireworks on the anniversary of Confederation.” [2]

While in the wake of the Great War, Dominion Day was less of a boisterous and patriotic affair, by the Great Depression of the 1930s, class-divisions and dissatisfaction with the failure of the federal government to address the economic crisis led to one of the most raucous and violent Dominion Days in Canadian history. On July 1st, 1935, the Regina police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police attacked a group of striking relief camp workers during a Dominion Day rally. Part of the “On-To-Ottawa Trek,” the striking workers were hoping to use the Dominion Day holiday to raise money and food to support their return home following the failure of strike negotiations with Prime Minister Richard Bennett. The Prime Minister ordered the police to seize and capture the leaders of the Trek in Regina and instead they instigated a city-wide riot that resulted in the mass arrest of over 100 people. It was certainly a memorable Dominion Day, but hardly a celebratory affair. To many of Canada’s unemployed in the 1930s, Confederation had failed.

The ensuing decades of the twentieth century continued to transform the meaning of Dominion Day. Following the trauma of the Second World War, Canada eventually experienced renewal, newly found economic prosperity, and greater independence from the British Empire. In the 1960s, in an effort to assert a new, independent national identity for Canadians, Prime Minister Lester Pearson proposed adopting an official flag for the country, one that was distinct from the Red Ensign, which had unofficially served as Canada’s flag for many years. The proposal of a maple leaf as the new symbol of Canada received sharp criticism and outright hostility from Anglo-Canadians who continued to cling to symbols of the British Empire, especially the Union Jack. For example, in May 1964 Pearson was booed and shouted down by an audience of Royal Canadian Legionnaires in Winnipeg for suggesting that the Red Ensign no longer adequately represented Canada. The provincial governments of Ontario and Manitoba were so offended by the maple leaf flag that each government adopted modified versions of the Red Ensign as provincial flags.

Flag of Ontario, adopted in 1965 to protest the new Canadian maple leaf flag.

Post-war Canadian nationalism remained contentious into the 1980s, particularly within the context of the sovereignty-association movement in Quebec and the constitutional debates. One of the outcomes of the repatriation of the British North America Act and the passage of the Canada Act in 1982 was the renaming of Dominion Day to Canada Day. This change in nomenclature, like the adoption of the maple leaf flag, left some Canadians dissatisfied. Michael Valpy, writing in the Globe and Mail on the first “Canada Day” insisted that “[i]t is Dominion Day. It shall always be Dominion Day.” He opposed the government’s decision to abandon the term “dominion,” one which he considered uniquely Canadian and especially patriotic. “Dominion Day embodies a powerfully poetic description of this glorious land,” argued Valpy, “a domain, a dominion, of towering mountains, rugged seacoasts, vast plains and forests, the gigantic North, the vibrant cities. It is a statement of Canada. It thumps you in the heart.” For Valpy and other other Canadians, Dominion Day had certainly taken on new meaning by the 1980s. [3]

Valpy’s thumping heart patriotism on the first Canada Day was a far cry from the cynicism and dissatisfaction of the editors of the Pictou County Advocate on the first Dominion Day. Since 1867, the meaning of the commemoration of Confederation has been a reflection of the often fragile and contentious state of Canadian nationalism. Dominion Day was a day of national mourning in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the late 1860s. A half-century later, in the shadow of the conscription crisis of the Great War, Canadians seemed to have little appetite for grand national celebrations. During the intense hardships of the Great Depression, the failures of Confederation led to violent conflict between citizens and state police on the country’s national holiday in 1935. And in the years after the Second World War, as Canada attempted to assert a more independent international identity, Canadians continued to struggle with the meaning of that “infant-monster Confederation.”

[1] Pictou County Advocate, 3 July 1867, p. 2

[2] Globe, 1 July 1921, p. 4

[3] Globe and Mail, 1 July 1983, p. 6

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