Politics·Analysis

From Borden to Pearson to Trudeau: How Canada Day has defined a nation

Canada Day is an opportunity to frame the moment and the nation. And when viewed in 50-year intervals — from Robert Borden to Lester B. Pearson to Trudeau — there are signposts of Canada's development. In Trudeau's telling, this was a moment for both idealism and introspection.

Trudeau confronts Indigenous oppression in Canada Day remarks

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the crowd on Parliament Hill during festivities marking the 150th anniversary of Canada's Confederation on July 1, 2017. 17:22

"One-hundred and fifty years since Confederation," Justin Trudeau observed, looking out at the thousands on Parliament Hill who had made it through the security and rain.

"A nice, round number that's as good a reason to celebrate as any."

No one gets excited about a number ending in seven or three. But round numbers are reason for reflection and pride.

It is an opportunity to frame the moment and the nation. And when viewed in 50-year intervals — from prime ministers Robert Borden to Lester B. Pearson to Trudeau — there are signposts of Canada's development.

In Trudeau's telling, this was a moment for both idealism and introspection. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Canada 150 celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Saturday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"For thousands of years, in this place," he said, "people have met, traded, built, loved, lost, fought, grieved."

Introspective criticism feels very of the moment. But perhaps introspection is something a great and 150-year-old country should be capable of.

Before 2017, there was 1967 and 1917

When Borden stood in the House of Commons and proposed that a committee be struck to consider how the 50th anniversary of Canada's founding should be celebrated, he clarified that he did "not intend to suggest that there should be any expenditure of public moneys — certainly not any considerable expenditure."
Robert Borden, a Tory, was prime minister of Canada from 1911 to 1920. Fifty years since Confederation fell in 1917, during the horrors of the First World War. (Library and Archives Canada)

With the world at war, frugality might have seemed appropriate in 1917.

Fifty years later, the centennial was marked with Expo 67, perhaps the greatest (and most expensive) party in this country's history.

The sesquicentennial (an awkward word), marked by cheery self-congratulation, but also protest, seems to exist somewhere between and beyond those two points: not quite a seminal moment, but something more than a modest celebration, featuring both Bono and a large inflatable duck.

The year 1917 has been dubbed the "worst year in Canadian history." Pierre Berton deemed 1967 to be "the last good year."

If we are lucky, 2017 might merely be remembered as another year of progress toward the ideal.

A nation fighting and being defined

In a statement reprinted in newspapers, Borden marked Dominion Day in 1917 "amid the welter and horror of war which devastates civilization" and just six weeks after announcing his intention to introduce compulsory military service, setting in motion the conscription crisis.

Canada had 'worthily taken her place and proudly borne her part'- Robert Borden, prime minister 1911 to 1920

The prime minister listed the ways Canada had grown, expanded, built and improved in its first 50 years, but the First World War loomed largest.

Among the "free democracies of the world" that had answered "Prussia" and its "challenge to civilization and human freedom," Canada had "worthily taken her place and proudly borne her part," Borden declared.

"Let us with resolute spirit so maintain our purpose and our effort that in this last and greatest chapter of humanity's striving and triumph, it shall be recorded of Canada that, as at the first she never hesitated, so to the end she never faltered."

The possibility of global destruction was more hypothetical in 1967 when Pearson marked 100 years since Confederation.

"As the world, to survive the nuclear future, must become a community of peace for all mankind, so must our country be a true homeland for all Canadians as it moves into its second century," Pearson observed on the centennial.
Lester Pearson was prime minister from 1963 to 1968. Expo 67 was 'a striking portrayal of a developing Canadian personality,' he said. (Canadian Press)

The foundation provided by our forefathers must continue to be furnished, "so that it will fulfil the hopes and aspirations of all our people for a good life."

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At a luncheon for Queen Elizabeth II in Montreal on July 3, Pearson described Expo 67 as "a striking portrayal of a developing Canadian personality." 

In 1967, July 1 was still Dominion Day. It wouldn't become Canada Day for another 15 years. But Canada had a new flag. And the notion of a peaceable kingdom — from medicare to multiculturalism — was taking shape.

At that lunch for the Queen, Pearson remarked that, "Canadians are famous for our modesty and restraint: a factual people, given to sombre and sometimes satirical self-analysis."

But, Pearson said, the centennial year had brought new interest from abroad.

"It is becoming apparent to the world — at last — that we are not merely an Arctic extension of the United States," the prime minister said. "A London journalist even went so far as to admit that Canada now existed not merely as a fact but also as an idea and an ideal."

A 'good land' becomes 'the greatest'

Fifty years later, we bask in the reflected glow of a prime minister's socks. Canada is noted in foreign papers for both our leader's whimsy and our status as a relative paragon of pluralism and moderation in a newly fevered world.

Where Borden faced a world war and Pearson saw nuclear threats, Trudeau's Canada contends with Donald Trump and climate change (the latter invoked explicitly on Saturday as "one of the greatest crises facing our planet").

Where Borden and Pearson spoke of "destiny," Trudeau was perhaps more triumphant. 

Look at us: Canada is being born today. And thanks to all of you, will be again tomorrow- Justin Trudeau, prime minister

"Ours is a good land," Pearson said in 1967.

"The best country on earth," Trudeau pronounced on Saturday.

Delivering the sort of speech that is measured for omissions as much as what is said, Trudeau was extensive in his remarks.

But in attempting to shout-out each and every province and territory, he skipped Alberta (it was included in the prepared text, but missed in the delivery). He will almost definitely be reminded of that at every future opportunity.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a slip in his Canada Day speech: he skipped over listing Alberta among the provinces and territories. He had a chance to apologize on stage a few minutes later. 1:06

From Trudeau, there were references to the First World War and Expo 67, but there was much more to be said about diversity, a foundational theme of his time as a political leader and a flashpoint in the latest concerns for the fate of the Western world.

"We don't aspire to be a melting pot," he said, an implicit contrast with our American cousin. "Indeed, we know true strength and resilience flows through Canadian diversity."

Surely to the excitement of Kellie Leitch, the former Conservative leadership contender, the prime minister even spoke of Canadian "values," loosely defined here as something like responsibility, tolerance, compassion and integrity.

Trudeau's turn to sombre self-analysis

There was a surplus of boosterism, but then there was sombre self-analysis.

Two days after Indigenous activists stared down officials and constructed a teepee on the lawn of Parliament Hill, Trudeau first acknowledged that Canadian history is much longer than 150 years. He referenced "Turtle Island."

After celebrating this country's history and pluralism, he turned to an admission of willful failure.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves a teepee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday. His speech Saturday spoke of the long oppression of Indigenous peoples. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"For centuries, the Indigenous peoples have been victims of oppression — from the very time when the first explorers celebrated their discovery of a 'new' world," Trudeau said.

"As a society, we must therefore recognize past mistakes, accept our responsibilities, and take action to ensure that each and every Canadian has a bright future."

After explaining that reconciliation would require dedication and hard work, he made a call to national pride.

"It is a choice we make, not because of what we did, or what we were, but because of who we are," he said.

Of course, a nation is easier said than done.

But until a country ceases to be, its story is still being written.

"150 years? Nah," Trudeau concluded, where his predecessors probably would have said "nay." 

"Look at us: Canada is being born today. And thanks to all of you, it will be again tomorrow."

(Note: I am humbly indebted to staff at the Library of Parliament and Library and Archives Canada for their generous help and effort in tracking down records of Borden's and Pearson's statements.)

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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