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Mark your Calendars, Canada: The Evolution of our National Holiday

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--June 1, 2017.

A luminous display of dazzling colours illuminates the night sky across Canada every year. Patriotic reds and whites shine predominantly, entangling themselves like a strand of Canadian DNA. Marking the anniversary of the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act), Canada Day commemorates legislation signed exactly 150 years ago this coming July. Throughout the country, celebratory events and exhibits have been established to mark the sesquicentennial revelries, offering glimpses into Canada’s past, and proposing plans for Canada’s future. In upcoming instalments, I hope to shed light on the ways in which several neighbourhoods across my hometown of Montreal celebrate their unique pasts while framing these histories in the context of a national anniversary. Examining Canada’s traditional approach to celebrating commemorative holidays will help ground my work, allowing for future conversations concerning nation building, forging a collective Canadian identity, and juxtaposing provincial heritage with a homogenous Canadian narrative.


Despite the stress-inducing days in the lead-up to festivities and the last-minute ventures into the worlds of barbeque supply stores and local grocery shops, national holidays typically take up only one day a year on our crammed calendars. Even though national holidays may not be the most frequent celebrations of our heritage, Matthew Hayday and Raymond B. Blake, the editors of Celebrating Canada: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities, argue against other academics who have traditionally dismissed holidays as a primary tool for nation building. Even though these celebrations occur yearly and may be a less intrusive form of symbolic nationalism than, say, flags and pervasive anthems, Hayday and Blake contend that holidays nevertheless remain a supportive piece of the nation’s “scaffolding” (Hayday and Blake, 5). By demonstrating the makeup of those who participate in national festivities, holidays tend to represent a perfect stepping stone into the study of nationalism and a country’s identity.

Recent terminology explaining the crafting of a nation’s collective culture is indebted to scholars like Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, who coined the phrases “imagined communities” (Anderson, 6) and “invented traditions” (Hobsbawm, 1) respectively. The idea that citizens of a nation feel bound to one another despite distinct characteristics comes to fruition in these seminal texts on nationalism. In consequence, debates concerning the carefully thought out steps a state takes to develop a unified national identity emerge. These concepts will be useful as we discuss examples of Canadian celebrations key to the formation our national character, resulting in a better understanding of the significance behind what some might regard as a convenient excuse to hold a get-together.

The celebration of Canada Day is often mistaken for a commemoration of Canada’s birthday. Put away the party hats and pull down the “Happy Birthday!” banners, because the history of Canada Day stems from components far more complex than a simple anniversary. As Canada existed prior to the signing of the BNA Act in 1867, the name given to this occasion fell under the title of Dominion Day. At first, celebrations across the country were diversely expressed. Activities varied depending on geographic regions, economic disparities, and socio-cultural practises (Pass, 192). Further, while Dominion Day recognized the union of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia into a single Dominion under the British Empire, other provinces became members of the country at later dates and therefore held the holiday to varying degrees of significance.

Only after the Second World War did a shift occur in the ways Canadians were instructed to celebrate their national holiday. With ties weakening between Britain and Canada, changing immigration patterns, and a federal concern with the rise in Quebec nationalism, the question of what it meant to be Canadian weighed heavily on the minds of state authorities and citizens alike (Hayday, 275). Dominion Day had to become an institutionalized celebration of Canada’s “official” collective past (Hayday 275). Under John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government, the policies issued in association with Dominion Day festivities focused primarily on establishing ties between Canada and Britain’s shared past. However, during the transition to Lester B. Pearson’s Liberal government, an expansion of the budget in the lead up to the Centennial celebration led to more regional representation and a collaboration with CBC to broadcast Parliament Hill revelries nationwide (Ibid., 284-285).

The invention of this tradition, to borrow Hobsbawm’s term, was not as simple as creating the perfect Canadian fairy tale. Conflicting histories promoted in Quebec led to rising tensions between the federal and provincial governments. Debates over whether a primary focus should be given to the promotion of high arts or popular arts also proliferated the Canadian sectors intent on encouraging a shared cultural experience (Ibid., 288-289). These disagreements rattled those in charge of celebrating Canada’s past, and the need to firmly entrench Dominion Day as a symbol of Canadian pride became a matter of national concern in the 1980s. July 1st experienced the official shift from Dominion Day to Canada Day in 1982 following a bill proposed by Liberal Vaudreuil MP Hal Herbert (Ibid., 297). This move strongly supported Canada’s unique past and distanced the country from a singular British legacy, culminating in the creation of a distinct Canadian holiday.

Behind the yearly concerts, attractions, and high sales in Canadian paraphernalia, the history of Canada Day demonstrates a thoughtfully planned project to promote Canadian pride. This summer, as the sesquicentennial celebrations consume community gatherings, keep in mind the efforts that have gone into encouraging a specific set of Canadian traditions, and the ways in which neighbourhoods promote their individual pasts in tandem with the grand Canadian narrative. In upcoming instalments, I hope to further highlight historic celebrations of Canada Day and delve into the upcoming Canada 150 events in Montreal Anglophone communities, focusing on how they balance the presentation of their pasts with the celebration of their country’s successes.


Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London, 2006.

Matthew Hayday, “Canada’s Day: Inventing a Tradition, Defining a Culture,” in Celebrating Canada: Volume 1: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities (Edited by Matthew Hayday and Raymond B. Blake), Toronto, 2016.

Matthew Hayday and Raymond B. Blake, “Introduction,” in Celebrating Canada: Volume 1: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities (Edited by Matthew Hayday and Raymond B. Blake), Toronto, 2016.

Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction,” in The Invention of Tradition (Edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger), Cambridge, 2012.

Forest D. Pass “Dominion Day and the Rites of Regionalism in British Columbia 1867-1937," in Celebrating Canada: Volume 1: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities (Edited by Matthew Hayday and Raymond B. Blake), Toronto, 2016.

*Rebecca Firiend is an Honours student in Public History at Concordia University in Montreal. She interned at QAHN in 2017. This is the first installment in her series focusing on community celebrations taking place this year in Montreal neighbourhoods in honour of Canada's 150th anniversary.