Origins of Canada Day

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Origins of Canada Day

    With Canada Day on the horizon, there is no time like the present to look at the history of Canada Day. From its early beginnings as Dominion Day to its current iteration as Canada Day it has always been a joyous celebration of Canada’s ‘birthday’. 


              Canada Day is the national day of Canada. It is a federal statutory holiday that celebrates the anniversary of July 1, 1867, the date of the Constitution Act, which at the time was known as the British North American Act. It united the three separate colonies of the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single dominion within the British Empire called Canada. The holiday was renamed in 1982, from Dominion Day to Canada Day, when the Canada Act was passed. 


              Even though Canada existed prior to 1867, within both French and British empires, Canada Day is often referred to as Canada’s birthday. Despite being known as Canada’s birthday, Canada Day is the anniversary of only one important national milestone on the way to the country’s full independence. This milestone was the signing of the Constitution Act, which allowed Canada to become a kingdom in its own right within the British Empire, often referred to at the time as the Dominion of Canada. This allowed Canada to gain increased political control and governance over its own affairs. Canada gradually increased its independence over the years, notably with the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, before becoming completely independent with the passing of the Constitution Act in 1982 that served to patriate the Canadian constitution. 



              The enactment of the British North American Act in 1867, was celebrated with the ringing of the bells at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto and bonfires, fireworks, and illuminations, excursions, military displays and musical and other entertainments around the country. On June 20th 1868, Governor General the Viscount mock issued a royal proclamation asking for Canadians to celebrate the anniversary of Confederation. 

           The holiday, however, was not established statutorily until May 15th, 1879, when it was officially designated Dominion Day eluding to the country being called a dominion of the British Empire.  At its inception the holiday was not dominant in the national calendar, any celebrations were mounted by local communities and the governor general hosted a party at Rideau Hall. Larger celebrations weren’t held until 1917 and then none again for a further decade. 

              In 1946 a bill was introduced by Phileas Cote, to rename Dominion Day as Canada Day. This bill passed the lower chamber very quickly but was stalled by the Senate and was effectively killed by this bodies recommendations. Commencing in 1958 the federal government began to orchestrate Dominion Day celebrations. Prime Minister john Diefenbaker requested that Secretary of State, Ellen Fairclough, put together appropriate events with a budget of $14000. Parliament was traditionally in session on July 1, but the Secretary persuaded Diefenbaker and the rest of the federal Cabinet to attend. 


           These celebrations consisted usually of Trooping the Colour ceremonies on Parliament Hill in the afternoon and evening, followed by a mass band concert and fireworks display. Fairclough later expanded the bills to include performing folk and ethnic groups, and the day became more casual and family oriented. During Canada’s centennial, in 1967, which is often seen as an important milestone in its own right as Canada was maturing as a distinct independent country, Dominion Day became more popular with Canadians. Starting in the late 1960’s, nationally televised, multi-cultural concerts held in Ottawa were added and the fete became known as Festival Canada. After 1980, the federal government began to promote celebrating Dominion Day beyond the national capital, giving grants and aid to cities across the country to help fund local activities. 


              In the early 1980’s many Canadians started referring informally to the holiday as Canada Day. This caused controversy in certain circles as people argued that the name Dominion Day was a holdover from the colonial era, whereas others said that Dominion Day does not translate well into French. The holiday was officially renamed as a result of a private members bill that was passed through the House of Commons on July 9th, 1982. The bill passed in five minutes without any debate, which inspired grumblings about the process. It met with much stronger resistance in the Senate, however the bill was passed regardless. With the granting or Royal Assent, the holidays name was officially changed to Canada Day on October 27 1982. 

              As Canada Day, or Dominion Day, is the anniversary of Confederation the date was used for a number of important events, such as: the first national radio network hookup by the Canadian National Railway (1927), inauguration of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s cross-country television broadcast with Governor General Vincent Massey’s Dominion Day speech from parliament hill (1958), the flooding of the St. Lawrence Seaway (1958), the first colour television transmission in Canada (1966), the inauguration of the Order of Canada (1967), and the establishment of “O Canada” as the countries national anthem (1980). Coincidentally other events happened to fall on the same day: such as the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 – shortly after which Newfoundland recognized July 1st as Memorial Day to commemorate the Newfoundland Regiment’s heavy losses during the battle. 



              It is typical for most communities to hold organized celebrations to celebrate Canada Day. Usually outdoor public events like, parades, carnivals, festivals, barbecues, air and maritime shows, fireworks, and free musical concerts as well as citizenship ceremonies. Canada Day has no standard type of celebration, however the locus of the celebrations is the national capital, where large concerts and cultural displays are held on Parliament Hill. The festivities are typically officiated by the Governor General and the Prime Minister, though the monarch of or another member of the Royal Family may also attend or take the governor general’s place. Smaller events are mounted in other parks around the capital and in neighbouring Gatineau. 


International Celebrations 

              Countries around the globe contain many Canadian expatriates and these people often organize Canada Day celebrations in their local area on or near the date of the holiday. Some examples are Canada D’eh, an annual celebration that takes place on June 30 in Hong Kong where an estimated attendance of 12000 was reported in 2008, Canadian Forces’ events on bases in Afghanistan, and in Mexico at the Royal Canadian Legion in Chapala and the Canadian Club in Ajijic. In China, Canada Day celebrations are held at the Bund Beach by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and at Canadian International School in Beijing by Canada China Business Council. 

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