Canada Day: Big parties give way to online shows amid coronavirus pandemic

A different kind of Canada Day unfolded across the country, as large celebrations in many parts of the country were replaced with backyard barbecues and digital events to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Public events go virtual as pandemic restrictions remain in place in many provinces

A woman wears a face mask and hat on Canada Day in Montreal, Wednesday, July 1 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press )

Canadians celebrated a Canada Day like no other as they marked the national holiday under unprecedented circumstances.

Canada Day 2020 took place amid both a global pandemic and a growing conversation about systemic racism in society.

It has been almost four months since governments ordered businesses closed and urged Canadians to stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, with restrictions only recently being eased.

The pandemic forced the cancellation of high-profile events and large celebrations like the annual pomp and pageantry on Parliament Hill in favour of backyard barbecues and online offerings to keep crowds from gathering. 

Instead, the Ottawa show was streamed live, to be followed by virtual fireworks as part of a buffet of digital activities curated by Canadian Heritage. The 53 bells of the Peace Tower still rang, with two special recitals streamed live.

People watch from their homes as a drive-by parade makes its way around town, during Canada Day celebrations in Newcastle, Ont., on July 1, 2020. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

The lack of official festivities didn't stop a couple hundred anti-government and anti-lockdown protestors from gathering on the Hill to demonstrate against pandemic restrictions and the Trudeau government.

In other parts of the country, crowds were allowed to gather, including for actual fireworks displays.

"Celebrate Canada Day safely," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer, tweeted yesterday. "Wear a mask, wash your hands and stay (two metres) apart."

As of 2:40 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Canada had 104,271 confirmed and presumptive coronavirus cases. Provinces and territories listed 67,746 of the cases as recovered or resolved.

A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial reports, regional health information and CBC's reporting stood at 8,663. Wednesday's tally did not include Ontario cases because of the Canada Day holiday. 

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Prime minister's message

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was volunteering at a farm that grows vegetables for the Ottawa Food Bank, touched on a number of issues confronting Canadians due to the COVID-19 pandemic in a Canada Day message.

He talked about the difficulty of being separated from family members and friends and the need to ensure "every senior has a safe place to live" after reports of appalling conditions in long-term care homes subject to outbreaks.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks up as he harvests broccoli at the Ottawa Food Bank Farm with his family, on Canada Day, Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"The last few months have been hard, and on this Canada Day we need to continue to be there for each other," Trudeau said.

"The reason that our communities are resilient ... is the choices that Canadians make every single day. The nurses and doctors who protect those around them, the women and men in uniform who serve at home and overseas, and the people of every age, faith and creed, who stand by one another."

Trudeau compared the day's altered celebrations to Canada Day during the first year of Canada's participation in the Second World War.

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The prime minister said Canada has work to do to end systemic discrimination so everyone feels the benefits of the country. 

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette also addressed the national effort to flatten the epidemic curve in a video released Wednesday.

"We are just now carefully emerging from months of fighting a deadly invisible enemy with unprecedented measures," Payette said. "Thanks to the tireless work of those who help slow down the virus and kept the country running."

Payette said Canadians chose compassion and solidarity when responding to the virus. She praised the transition to online classes, teleworking and physical distancing.

"[The pandemic] has forced us to make sure that we support workers families and businesses, that we stand for the most vulnerable, the less fortunate, that we ensure the security and well-being of all and that we denounce hatred and violence in all its forms," said Payette.

A group of medical workers in B.C. received a Canada Day video call from Prince William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on Wednesday morning.

Kensington Palace said the royals spoke to front-line workers at Surrey Memorial Hospital about their experiences treating patients with COVID-19 and the mental health impacts of the pandemic.

"Catherine and I are proud of all of you and of everyone on the front line who has led the way very stoically and very bravely, and put patient care right at the top of the list," William said. "You've done a fantastic job."

Calls to eradicate racism

Canada Day also came amid loud calls to eradicate systemic racism in society sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May. 

Since then, Canadians have marched in protests across the country calling out anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and other forms of racism. 

The social upheaval has brought intense scrutiny to police treatment of people of colour and led to calls to redirect funding from police departments to social and community services.

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Indigenous Canadians have long had mixed feelings about Canada Day, with many saying the holiday represents a celebration of decades of colonization that led to genocide and a loss of culture, as detailed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

There are a number of "Cancel Canada Day" protests planned by the Idle No More movement in cities including Vancouver, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Halifax, Prince Rupert and Kitchener.

In Toronto, activists were painting the words "Black Lives Matter" on a street in the city's iconic Kensington Market in solidarity with the global movement against anti-Black racism.

Artists work on a street-size Black Lives Matter mural in Toronto's Kensington Market on Wednesday. (Laura Howells/CBC)

In his statement to Canadians, Trudeau said the country can better itself by saying no to racism, injustice and hate.

"What makes Canada special is not that we know that this is the best country in the world; it's that we know that it could be," Trudeau said.

"We know our work together is not yet done.... Not while anyone faces racism or injustice. Not while we still have so far to go on the path of reconciliation."

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Governor General honours 'remarkable Canadians'

Earlier in the day, Payette recognized 123 Canadians for their skills, courage or dedication to service with a decoration for bravery, a meritorious service decoration or the volunteer medal. The list of "remarkable Canadians" is in place of the traditional Canada Day announcement of new Order of Canada members.

Among those honoured for their bravery are five people who tried to stop a gunman who opened fire inside a Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29, 2017, killing six people.

Azzedine Soufiane, who died trying to stop the attacker, is being posthumously awarded the Star of Courage, the second-highest award for bravery in Canada after the Cross of Valour.

Four survivors of the attack — Said Akjour, Hakim Chambaz, Aymen Derbali and Mohamed Khabar — are among 13 people receiving the Medal of Bravery.

Hundreds of anti-government and anti-lockdown protestors gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Canada Day to demonstrate against COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. (Andrew Lee/CBC News)

Another 21 people are receiving the Meritorious Service Cross, including Jonathan Pitre, the 17-year-old known as the "Butterfly Boy." He's being recognized for raising awareness about his life with a rare debilitating skin disorder before he died in April 2018.

Ralph Thomas, 82, is being awarded the Sovereign's Medal for Volunteers.

Since 1997, Thomas has been president of a New Brunswick advocacy and service group called Pride and Race, Unity and Dignity through Education, is the co-founder of the New Brunswick Black History Society and has served as an ambassador for the province's Sports Hall of Fame.

With files from The Canadian Press