As it Happened: The Archive Edition - The Home Episode

For most Canadians today, July 1st is practically synonymous with Canada Day. But before 1982, it was called Dominion Day. And if one prime minister had had his way, it would have remained forever thus.
Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker/A Canadian flag waving in front of Parliament Hill (Canadian Press)

If you are 35 or younger and grew up in Canada, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this July 1st marks the 150th time we as Canadians will celebrate Canada Day. In truth, of course, Canada as we know it is not really turning 150 this year — it is either much older or much younger depending on who you ask.

(Justin Tang/CP)

One thing is for certain, though: Canada Day as a celebration is only a few decades old: before 1982, it was officially called "Dominion Day."

And if one former prime minister had had his way, it would have remained forever thus.

Mr. Trudeau's been trying all along to get rid of Dominion Day — failing to appreciate the basis for which the name for Canada was given.- Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to As it Happens host Barbara Frum

John Diefenbaker was Canada's thirteenth prime minister, from 1957 to 1963. And for him, the only rightful name for Canada's July 1st celebrations was "Dominion Day." He saw the move to re-brand the holiday "Canada Day" as a cynical ploy on the part of Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government to curry favour with the electorate.​

Queen Elizabeth is dwarfed by a 30-foot-high birthday cake, made of plywood covered with decorations, in front of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa in this July 1, 1967 photo during Dominion Day celebrations. (The Canadian Press)

A full five years before the change, the former prime minister elaborated on his objection to As It Happens host Barbara Frum. Here is some of their conversation.

Barbara Frum: Mr. Diefenbaker, I gather you're not too happy about the plans that the Liberal government have made for this Dominion Day.

John Diefenbaker: As a matter of fact, it was my administration that in 1957 — for the first time in Canada's history — started a celebration on Dominion Day on Parliament Hill. Then, a couple of years ago, it was more-or-less abolished.  And finally — now — tremendous celebration is to take place.

BF: You have to admit they've put their heart into it — at least that's their slogan this year.

JD: More than their heart! The people's money to the extent of three-million dollars. But the point I make is this: I'm all for a national celebration. They describe it as "Canada Day," which it is not. Mr. Trudeau's been trying all along to get rid of Dominion Day — failing to appreciate the basis for which the name for Canada was given, namely, as the Fathers of Confederation met some wanted to have it called the "Kingdom of Canada." The United States objected. And, finally, one of the Fathers of Confederation, reading his scripture, found these words: "And He shall have dominion, from sea to sea." Mr. Trudeau wants to get rid of that, despite the fact that there's been no change in the statute. When he was in England, he ridiculed the Queen. All the way along, he's been speaking about a republic in Canada. And now, we are to have this celebration.

The Hon. John Diefenbaker watches then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the federal leaders debate in May, 1979. (Canadian Press/Bill Brennan) (Bill Brennan/CP)

BF: You said that he insulted the Queen. How did he do that?

JD: All you have to do is to read his answers given to Oxford University students when they asked him about the Queen while he was over there. And his answer was, "Oh, I don't pay attention to things like that." A most unusual, unseemly thing to do.

We wouldn't get into a debate because a debate means there's two sides to it.- Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to  As it Happens  host Barbara Frum

BF: All right, let's not you and I get into a debate tonight about what he meant. I think he was asked about what were the important issues in Canada — 

JD: We wouldn't get into a debate because a debate means there's two sides to it. 

BF: [laughs]. And I don't have a side. Right. Mr. Diefenbaker, we've got "Canada Day," we've got "Dominion Day" — let's use your word for it. We've got this head-to-head struggle going on —

JD: I want to see that day celebrated. But lo and behold — instead of having Her Majesty, the Queen, give a message, where she's still the head of state in Canada, or the Governor General, the prime minister is going to speak and no one else. Dominion Day will be used on Parliament Hill as a launching pad by the government for a general election this fall. And that's what I object to.

BF: You're really hot tonight, Mr. Diefenbaker.

JD: No, I'm not! If I was, I'd borrow some of the prime minister's language to describe what's taking place. 

Queen Elizabeth II and former prime minister John Diefenbaker shake hands, as former Gov.-Gen. Roland Michener (centre) looks on, in Ottawa in 1979. (Canadian Press)

You can hear more of Barbara Frum's June 28, 1977 interview with Prime Minister Diefenbaker, as well as the following stories, on this week's episode of "As it Happened: The Archive Edition":

  • John Metcoff purchased Prime Minister Diefenbaker's childhood home, in the hopes of restoring it and turning it into a museum
  • Canadian ChristineYouseff prepares to welcome 43 of her Syrian cousins into her modest Scarborough bungalow
  • Stories behind some of Canada's most storied place names, like Blow Me Down, Newfoundland, and Snowflake, Manitoba — from some of the people who call those places home
  • Albie Baker did hard time for making a living as a jewel thief, but says he has no regrets about robbing from New York City's über-rich

Related links:

Built to withstand bombs, Diefenbunker Museum toilets now in disrepair


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