Justin Trudeau's Canada Day debut and the patriotic debate

Justin Trudeau will mark his first Canada Day as prime minister on Friday, addressing the assembled crowd on Parliament Hill. Otherwise a perfunctory and apolitical moment, it might still be watched for hints of change in tone and emphasis, and even colour scheme.

PM will preside over sesquicentennial next year, already touted as celebration of 'diversity and inclusion'

Justin Trudeau, as leader of the Liberal Party, poses for a group picture along the Canada Day parade route in the Mississauga, Ont., neighbourhood of Port Credit on July 1, 2015. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

When Canadians gather next year to celebrate the sesquicentennial of this country's founding, we might be able to partake not only of patriotically branded beer, but also of legal marijuana (if that's what you're into). Or at least to celebrate the impending legalization thereof.

This year, we must make do with the collective and collectivist buzz of having filled out our long-form censuses. Or congratulate ourselves on the latest spread in the New York Times, this one on our hospitable treatment of Syrian refugees.

Such is life in Justin Trudeau's Canada.

Trudeau will mark his first Canada Day as prime minister on Friday, addressing the assembled crowd on Parliament Hill. Otherwise a perfunctory and apolitical moment, it might still be watched for hints of change in tone and emphasis and adjective, and colour scheme.

Canada is back, circa 2007

It was around Canada Day in 2007, Stephen Harper's second as prime minister, that the last of those things became a point of intrigue. It was that year that someone noticed the stage decoration seemed a little bluer than might typically be expected.

Stephen Harper, as prime minister in 2007, told a Canada Day crowd in Ottawa that 'Canada's back as a vital player on the global stage.' (Dylan Martinez/Associated Press)

It was also in 2007 that Harper declared Canada to be "back."

"Canada's back as a vital player on the global stage," he said, eight years before his successor declared basically the same thing.

Such is the debate over Canada's place, part of the larger argument about what this country is and has been. Harper engaged with that argument over his eight years, to the consternation of those who believed he was fundamentally remaking the place into something it wasn't previously. 

He was, in specific small ways, at least trying to establish a different idea of Canada.

Canada Day on the Hill

Peter Mansbridge hosts special coverage of Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET. He'll be joined by Power & Politics' Rosemary Barton and arts reporter Tashauna Reid. Performances include Metric, Alex Cuba, Coleman Hell, Coeur de Pirate and more.

Watch live on CBC News Network, CBC Television or here on CBCNews.ca.

Read more details

"What we're seeing is the emergence of a new patriotism, or at the very least, a small-c conservative alternative to the established Liberal narrative about Canada," Patrick Muttart, one of the minds behind Harper's ascent, told the Globe and Mail in 2011.

The Conservative dilemma, as recounted by Paul Wells in his book The Longer I'm Prime Minister, was that so many of the accepted national icons are linked to the Liberals, the governing party for most of the 20th century, the party of the charter and multiculturalism and the flag (indeed, the party of the nation's red-and-white colour scheme).

The Queen and the War of 1812

So the Conservatives embraced different icons: the military, hockey, the Arctic, the War of 1812, the Fathers of Confederation, John A. Macdonald, the Queen. The 30th anniversary of the charter was not particularly acknowledged. The citizenship guide was rewritten.

In 2013 and 2014, Harper used his Canada Day address to describe the country as a "courageous warrior." In 2015, he described Canada as "an island of stability" ("in times of never-ending economic and political turmoil in the world") and made reference to the Franklin expedition.

Arctic sovereignty was often promoted during Stephen Harper's time in office, as well as the public-private partnership to find the Franklin expedition flagship. Here, a Parks Canada underwater archeologist explores the hull of HMS Erebus. (Parks Canada)

A month later he launched the election campaign that would end his time in power.

In Harper's time, Canada was an international symbol of fiscal prudence. In Trudeau, Canada has a symbol of flashy and huggable progressivism.

But the Liberal return to power might have had something to do with a desire, from some, for a different idea.

Trudeau nostalgia

"Canadians clearly told us they had grown tired of now defeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper and were yearning to return to the values that they believe traditionally defined Canada and Canadian society," Ensight reported last year.

"Trudeau was campaigning on a return to the values that many feel have traditionally defined Canadian society — civility, kindness, inclusion, consultation, collaboration and community."

His last name, for that matter, "harkens back to a time that many people feel was the Golden Age of Canada and its values, with the patriation of the Constitution, the development of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, bilingualism, multiculturalism and compassion."

For all of the fretting by his detractors that Harper would change Canada, his most meaningful change was the establishment of a decidedly conservative party that so far seems capable of outlasting him. Various other changes have been or will be undone  —  though there seems no great desire to reverse the most significant tax cuts  —  but there is the foundation of a distinct alternative to the Liberal Party, in themes and ideas and priorities.

That alternative did not reject all of the established ideas  —  Harper still touted diversity and compassion — but it found new things to emphasize (strength and freedom, for instance).

But in winning power, Trudeau now has the platform. And whatever the nostalgia, he also promised real change.

The history war

So the long-form census has returned and 25,000 Syrians have arrived, the Senate is less partisan, the federal cabinet is equally male and female and there is agreement to enhance the Canada Pension Plan. On Sunday, Trudeau will become the first prime minister to march in Toronto's Pride parade.

The words to the national anthem will likely soon be changed. A desire to re-engage in international peacekeeping, that old Canadian idea, has been expressed.

And a year from now, regardless of marijuana's availability, Trudeau will preside over the sesquicentennial, a celebration that will apparently be based around themes of — as listed by the department of Canadian heritage — "diversity and inclusion, reconciliation from nation to nation with Indigenous people, the environment and youth."

The "history war" between Liberals and Conservatives has been called "pointless" and surely at its worst it can seem petty. We might all agree to at least not deny the existence of either the charter or the Queen. Both, on their best days, seem nice to have around.

But even if we might agree about certain principles or events, there would still surely be a debate about emphasis and significance and the lasting meaning of any particular development. 

Patriotism might indeed be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but how best to define and express one's patriotism — who we are and how we should be — is the eternal debate of all nations.


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.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?