The Current

Canada Day history has tradition of dissent, says professor

As crowds gather on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Canada's Confederation to celebrate, there are those who resist marking the day — not unlike other years in Canada's history.
As preparations for Canada Day festivities are underway, a teepee set up on Parliament Hill by a grassroots Indigenous group has been moved closer to the Peace Tower. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)
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As many as half-a-million people are expected to gather in Ottawa, July 1, to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary of Confederation — a holiday that history professor Matthew Hayday knows a lot about.

He wrote the Canada Day entry for the Canadian Encyclopedia. The editor of Celebrating Canada, volume 1: Holidays, National Days and the Crafting of Identities tells The Current's guest host Mike Finnerty that before 1958, the only year that had a significant celebration in Ottawa was the Diamond Jubilee in 1927.

Related1927: Diamond Jubilee broadcast links Canadians

"It was the Diefenbaker government that decided they wanted to do more to celebrate — and this is noteworthy —Dominion Day."
Queen Elizabeth stands in front of a 30-foot-high birthday cake in Ottawa, July 1, 1967. (The Canadian Press)

He explains the initiative was to foster a certain Canadian identity that subsequent governments over the years expanded to include new messages about Canada.

"[In] the Lester B. Pearson years, you started to see a lot more about bilingualism as part of these events, you see multiculturalism starting to be woven into it, and some very different messages over time about what place Indigenous peoples are playing in Canada."

Hayday tells Finnerty that messaging around Canada Day is almost always deliberate.

"Things that look subtle are deliberate. The choice of who's going to perform on Parliament Hill is very carefully constructed … It's about trying to include different groups that will send different messages about the country," he explains.

Although Hayday points out the recent arrest of Indigenous people wanting to set up a tepee and have a peaceful protest on the hill is likely not part of the government's play for celebrating Canada Day.

A teepee set up on the far southeast corner of Parliament Hill was on Thursday allowed to be moved closer to the Peace Tower. 0:32

"The government very explicitly had a message of reconciliation that they've been talking about for the past year now," he says.

"On the other hand, I think it's worth noting that this type of dissent has a long history in Canada as well that is very much a part of how Canadians from coast to coast have engaged with Dominion Day and Canada Day."

Hayday points to two examples.

In 1869, there was opposition to a proposed bill to make Dominion Day an official holiday in Nova Scotia. Critics argued they would rather make it a "day of lamentation."  For them, Dominion Day showed their powerlessness in government. The bill was withdrawn.

And in the 1920s in B.C., Chinese communities organized what they called Chinese Humiliation Day protests against the Chinese Immigration Act banning Chinese immigration to Canada.

"So there is very much a tradition of dissent to this day."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post that include how people are celebrating Canada Day across the country.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson and Pacinthe Mattar.