The History of Canada Day

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Podcast Transcript

Every July 1, the people of Canada celebrate their national holiday of Canada Day. 

The day dates back over 150 years, and despite what many people think, the day isn’t exactly Canadian Independence Day.

Also, for most of the time the day has been celebrated, it wasn’t even called Canada Day, which can provide an insight as to what the day was originally celebrating. 

Learn more about Canada Day, its origins, and how it is celebrated on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

To understand the history of Canada Day, it is necessary to understand a brief history of Canada. 

I’ve touched on some of these topics before in episodes on exactly when Canada became independent and why Canada never joined the American Revolution. 

The colony of Canada was initially centered around what is today the province of Quebec. At the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century, the majority of non-native people living in what is today Canada were mostly French-speaking. Despite being a British colony after the defeat of France in the Seven Years’ War, it was culturally and linguistically French.

Over time, British settlers increased, and the English-speaking community grew. 

There wasn’t just a single Canadian British colony either. There were several colonies, just as there were in the United States before the revolution. 

The English colony of Newfoundland was established in 1610.

The colony of Nova Scotia was created after the expulsion of French Acadians in 1763. 

In 1767, the island of St. John’s, today known as Prince Edward Island, was split from Nova Scotia to become its own colony.

The colony of New Brunswick was created in 1784 after the partition of Nova Scotia. 

In 1791, most of the former colony of New France was renamed the colony of Lower Canada. This was mostly centered around the Saint Lawrence River and parts of what is today Labrador.

At the same time, the colony of Upper Canada was created as well. This consisted of most of what is today Southern Ontario. 

In 1841, Upper and Lower Canada were merged into a single colony known as the Province of Canada.

The merger of Upper and Lower Canada was an attempt to do two things. First, was to use the money from Lower Canada to bail out the government of Upper Canada, which had gone bankrupt. The second reason was to dilute the vote of the French-speaking population in Lower Canada with people from Upper Canada. 

The capital of the Province of Canada moved around quite a bit, going from Kingston to Montreal to Toronto to Quebec City to finally, in 1866, landing in Ottawa. 

By the 1860s, the British Empire was starting to face some problems. Several of their larger colonies, especially those that had significant numbers of British settlers, were becoming large, powerful, and wealthy in their own right, and the people living there identified themselves by where they lived, not from where their ancestors migrated.

They had seen this play out in the 18th century in the United States, and there was a fear that revolution and calls for independence could break out in many of their colonies. Not to mention that it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage these large colonies from a distance.

To avoid what happened with the American Colonies, the British decided to take a different approach. They would give some of their colonies a high degree of autonomy. 

They created what became known as Dominion status. 

The term Dominion had been used in the past but never in a way that actually meant anything concrete. Wales was given the title of Dominion in 1535, and the Dominion of New England was created in 1686 for the collection of colonies in the Americas. 

In 1867, the British reorganized several of their remaining colonies in North America to become the Dominion of Canada. The colonies that took part were the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. 

The new Dominion of Canada was to be very different than the system that preceded it. For starters, the Province of Canada was to be split into two separate provinces, Quebec and Ontario, with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia being separate provinces as well.

The provinces would all exist in a federal system, retaining many rights themselves but with some powers being exercised at the federal level.

A federal parliament would exist that had a House of Commons and a Senate. There would also be an independent judiciary and a system of taxation. 

While the Dominion of Canada was to be given wide-ranging powers of autonomy, there was a catch. The British monarch was still to be the head of state, and all legislation passed by the Canadian parliament still had to be approved by the British parliament. Also, all foreign affairs were to be administered by Britain. 

The legislation codifying these major changes was known as the British North America Act, and it came into effect on July 1, 1867.

The day the act went into effect, there were celebrations throughout the new Canadian Confederation.  Church bells rang, fireworks were set off, bonfires were lit, and there were feasts and festivities in all the provinces.

The next year, the Govern General of Canada, the representative of the monarch, issued a proclamation encouraging everyone to celebrate the anniversary of the day Canada achieved Dominion status on July 1. 

Celebrations were informally held for the next decade. It wasn’t until 1879 that a formal holiday was created, which was known as Dominion Day. 

Dominion Day wasn’t a major holiday on the Canadian calendar for years. Most of the celebrations were local in nature, and in many communities, there were no celebrations at all.  

Dominion Day didn’t have the same impact or meaning that Independence Day had, which was celebrated just a few days later by their neighbors to the south. 

In 1917 there was a big nationwide Dominion Day celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the British North America Act. Still, again, after that, celebrations of Dominion Day fell off. 

One of the problems was the very name, Dominion Day. As Canada grew in the 20th century, Dominion status became more of a sticking point. 

It was a constant reminder that Canada was not fully in control of its own destiny. 

The first attempt to change the name of Dominion Day took place in 1946. A member of parliament from Quebec, Philéas Côté, introduced legislation that would change the name of the holiday from Dominion Day to Canada Day. 

The bill breezed through the House of Commons but was stalled in the Senate. The Senate eventually returned the bill suggesting an alternate name: The National Holiday of Canada.

The National Holiday of Canada doesn’t really roll off the tongue as easily as Canada Day does, and the proposal eventually died. 

In 1958, Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker initiated several traditions for Dominion Day. They began a Trooping the Colour ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, similar to the military parade that takes place in London every year on the sovereign’s birthday. 

Other events took place on Parliament Hill, including concerts and fireworks displays.

Despite the celebrations in Ottawa, Dominion Day still wasn’t a huge Canadian holiday.

The thing that revived the status of Dominion Day was the Canadian Centennial in 1967. 

The 100-year anniversary of the implementation of the British North America Act sparked a renewed interest in Canadian history. There were larger celebrations in Ottawa that year which were televised all over Canada. Until 1967, most of the celebrations that took place on Parliament Hill were totally unknown to the rest of the country. 

There were also Centennial celebrations all over Canada, which began a revival in the celebration of Dominion Day. 

As Dominion Day celebrations began to proliferate and gain in popularity, the issue of the name came back up.

More and more people began referring to Dominion Day as Canada Day and was a movement to formally change the name to Canada Day. There was also pushback from people who wanted to keep the name Dominion Day for the sake of tradition. 

Things finally came to a head in 1982. 

1982 was a landmark year for Canada and its constitution. The Constitution Act of 1982 was passed, which included the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Perhaps the biggest change was that it finally removed the ability of the British Parliament to approve Canadian legislation. 

This had mostly been a formality and a rubber stamp process, but it was still a thing and a very annoying thing. 

It also retroactively renamed the British North American Act of 1867 to the Constitution Act of 1867.

The subject of the Canadian constitution is worthy of its own future episode as there are elements of and implications of the Canadian constitution that even many Canadians might not be aware of.

After the Constitution Act of 1982 was ratified and enacted, Canada was no longer in any sense of the word a Dominion, yet the name remained attached to the holiday. 

On July 9, 1982, a bill was passed by the House of Commons that officially changed the name of Dominion Day to Canada Day.

The entire process of passing the bill was, I have to say, a bit shady but totally legal. There were only 12 members in parliament at the time when the vote took place, which was well below the number necessary for a quorum.

However, the rules of the House of Commons stipulate that unless a member makes an explicit quorum call, votes can still take place. The vote did take place, and it passed in five minutes without debate. 

It went to the Senate, where there were grumblings about the way it was done, but in the end, it passed, and Dominion Day was officially replaced with Canada Day. 

Since the change to Canada Day, the popularity of the holiday has grown, and today, you can find Canada Day celebrations in most communities in Canada. 

There are even Canada Day celebrations around the world, wherever Canadians may be living. The largest overseas Canada Day celebration takes place in London in Trafalgar Square just outside of the Canadian Embassy where as many has 100,000 people have been in attendance.

I’ve had the pleasure of being in Canada a couple of times for Canada Day. The most memorable one was when I was on the islands of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, where I was able to watch the mud bog races in the town of Port Clement. 

The biggest celebrations, as usual, take place in Ottawa, which include an enormous fireworks display on Parliament Hill. 

So Canada Day isn’t an independence day per se, although it does acknowledge the birth of modern Canada.  It is more of a national day and celebration of all that is Canada. 

So to all the Canadians out there, in Canada and around the world, have a Happy Canada Day!