Canada 150: Not the first celebration to spark controversy

People hold up a sign as part of a demonstration where a teepee was erected on Parliament Hill to protest Canada Day. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

Canada Day is poised to be the high point of celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Ottawa is in Party Central mode, with guests including Prince Charles, Bono and The Edge of U2 and a host of Canadian performers including Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Cirque de Soleil. But there has been a vocal debate across the country about how celebratory Canada 150 events should be — and even whether it should be celebrated at all.

Indigenous leaders have called the events a “celebration of colonialism.” A clever designer has been marketing T-shirts with an inverted Canada 150 logo over the words Colonialism 150. On Twitter, hashtags like #Resist150 and #Unsettle150 connect posts calling the celebrations into question. The @canada1504sale account draws attention to how corporations are trying to profit from patriotism.

Questions about how Canada 150 is being celebrated abound. Earlier this year the Parti Québécois launched a campaign called “L’autre 150e” to suggest Confederation has been bad for Quebec. People have questioned the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on Canada 150-related activities. Some MPs have criticized the limited place for Canada’s history in the government’s plans.

Should planners be concerned that this party has gone completely off the rails? Well, perhaps not. Controversy and contestation have always been part of celebrations in Canada, including landmark birthdays and national holidays like Canada Day. It would be more surprising if there wasn’t active debate about Canada’s past or what the path forward from here should be.

‘Day of lamentation’ in Nova Scotia

Dissent about celebrating Canada goes back to the early years of Confederation. Debating an 1869 bill about making Dominion Day a public holiday, Nova Scotia MPs argued that they would rather make it a “day of lamentation.” For these MPs, Dominion Day showed their powerlessness in the House of Commons. The bill was withdrawn, and not revived again until a decade later.

After the passage of the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, British Columbia’s Chinese communities organized Chinese Humiliation Day events to be held on Dominion Day. They wore badges stating “Remember the Humiliation,” organized speeches and handed out leaflets. Their goal was to overturn the law, which banned Chinese immigration to Canada.

In the 1960s, organizers designed the Indians of Canada pavilion at Expo 67 to challenge the celebratory atmosphere of the centennial. The pavilion discussed issues such as language loss through residential schools. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Quebec sovereigntists transformed the religiously oriented St-Jean-Baptiste Day events of June 24 into the explicitly nationalist Fête Nationale. This set up the holiday as a rival to Dominion Day events. Québécois artists took sides on the “national question” by deciding at whose party they would perform.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stops for a photograph during a street party for the Fête Nationale du Québec on June 24th in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

National celebrations have also had the potential to change the way our country functions. Governments have used them to set the tone about what Canada could be, rather than simply celebrating what it has been. As part of the 1927 Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the postmaster-general introduced a series of bilingual stamps. The stamps helped set a precedent for the gradual introduction of bilingualism into federal institutions.

The narrative of Canadian identity that has been part of the federal government’s Dominion Day and Canada Day events since 1958 has been dramatically transformed over the years. They used to be militaristic, British-centric portrayals of Canada’s heritage. Over the decades, bilingualism and multicultural Canada became central themes. Messages about Indigenous communities morphed from those that were explicitly assimilationist and colonial into a celebration of First Nations cultures and hope for reconciliation in the future.

Celebrations send messages to Canadians

The decisions made about which artists will perform at Canada Day celebrations, the languages they use and even the way they are dressed all send political messages to Canadians. Organizers of the Canada Day spectacles in Ottawa normally invite myriad francophone performers. They purposely include not just Québécois but also Acadians, Franco-Ontarians and other French-speaking Canadians. Doing so reinforces the idea of Canada as an officially bilingual country, and also sends a message that French-speaking Canada is not restricted to Quebec.

On Indigenous issues, the change in messaging has been dramatic. In 1965, First Nations were represented by tartan-clad, bagpipe-playing teenaged Indigenous girls from a British Columbia residential school. By the 1990s, this had changed to rock and pop artists who performed in the Innu-aimun (Montagnais) language or Inuktitut. It was a major shift from a message of forced assimilation to one encouraging revitalisation of Indigenous languages.

The laudatory ways that Canada is celebrated in official speeches on a Parliament Hill stage on Canada Day may mask ongoing deep problems in our society. But these events can also signal key symbolic shifts from the past, and possibilities of change in the future. It’s commonplace to dismiss Canada as a relatively young country by global standards. However, 150 years of a stable, democratic, multinational federation is nothing to sneeze at.

Canada’s political nationhood is an ongoing process that requires constant renegotiation and dialogue if we are to continue to live together. Events like Canada Day and Canada 150 provide opportunities to engage and educate Canadians about the problems of the country’s past and present. The stories of Canada told at these events may encourage Canadians to support new directions for the future. The controversies that surround the Canada 150 celebrations may actually indicate our desire to perfect and improve this country, rather than consign it to the dustbin of history.


Matthew Hayday is the co-editor of Celebrating Canada, volume 1: Holidays, National Days and the Crafting of Identities.