Canada officially celebrates Monday the birthday of Queen Victoria, a figure who casts a large shadow (not only metaphorically) over the origins of our country. The statutory holiday is our oldest secular observance, established by the Legislature of the Province of Canada in 1845. During Victoria's reign, the idea of Canada took shape, and a nation from sea to sea was established in 1867, with Confederation. There's a good reason Victoria is the most common place name in Canada that is derived from a person's name.
But Victoria Day should stand for more than that, for more too than the official observance in Canada of her great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth II's birthday, and for much more than what it is called in some in parts of the country: May two-four, after a case of 24 beers. It should be celebrated as a symbol of the birth of many of the ideas that define our world. The list is astonishing, and the inheritance of the Victorians is perhaps the greatest influence of any age on our own.
Science: The adoption and regularization of the scientific method and the emergence of Darwinism - especially as promoted to the general public by Thomas Huxley.
Humanitarianism: Emergence of internationalism, growing partly from the anti-slavery movement and later energized by the statesman William Ewart Gladstone's articulation of the need to recognize the rights of many small nations. As Gladstone said of the downtrodden: "The sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own." Closer to home, Charles Dickens was a powerful advocate for the poor and for factory workers.
Feminism: The roots of the modern women's movement are to be found, in part, in the establishment of women's colleges at Oxford and Cambridge in the last third of the 19th century - and in J.S. Mill's book The Subjection of Women.
Free trade: International trade networks were given impetus by the liberals of "the Manchester school," imperial collaboration and colonial development; the result of all these was a form of what is now called globalization.
Progress: The Victorians, arguably more than any other series of generations, demonstrated their commitment to the idea of progress; the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the Crystal Palace in London, probably stands as the most conspicuous expression of industrial progress. Prince Albert was an enthusiastic backer, as was his wife Queen Victoria.
Democracy: The electoral franchise was expanded successively in 1832, 1867 and 1885.
"The Victorian era, especially its latter half, was a kind of engine-room for most of the main issues of modernity: imperialism, participatory politics, mass education, women's rights, and global economic interdependence," says Dr. Brad Faught, associate professor of history at Tyndale University College and author of The New A-Z of Empire: A Concise Handbook of British Imperial History. "No Victorian age, no modern world. As such, Victoria Day should be seen to mark much more than simply the birthday of a long-dead queen."
Far from being an era of stuffiness and puritanism, the 6½-decade reign of Queen Victoria was bursting with confidence and dynamism and produced vast change. It is not a dead thing. It is something that made our world. Canadians stand only to benefit from being reminded of that fact. Far from forgetting it, the 21st century ought to emulate Victorian victories.