Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for unity amid a potentially divisive national holiday on Friday, using his official Canada Day address to call for deepened commitment to Canadian values like hope and kindness.
The prime minister said the date marking Canada’s 155th anniversary of confederacy offers an opportunity to embrace the values the Maple Leaf represents, adding the flag is more than a symbol.
“It’s also a promise – a promise of opportunity, a promise of safety for those fleeing violence and war, and a promise of a better life,” he said.
An unprecedented level of security met locals and visitors alike in the national capital Friday for the first in-person Canada Day events in Ottawa since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Police had a highly visible presence throughout the downtown core, with groups of officers walking the streets and cars framing the entrance to the LeBreton Flats Park where the main celebrations are set to take place. Visitors had to walk through airport-style metal detectors and have their bags searched before entering.
Among the earliest arrivals were Donna Marzolf and her 12-year-old daughter Alexis Livingstone, who travelled from Calgary to take part in the celebration and secure front-row seats to the main stage. Alexis, sporting a maple leaf T-shirt and carrying a small Canadian flag, said she was particularly excited to see her twin sister Sophia perform O Canada at the festivities as part of the Calgary Children’s Choir.
The twins’s mother said the day was a celebration of “peace and safety and freedom – though that kind of has a bad connotation right now.”
Karen MacDonald flew from Ladner, B.C., for her first visit to Ottawa.
“It’s totally thrilling to me to be here in person,” she said. “So many different people in the city are all wearing red and white, with flags. It makes my tummy hurt with pride.”
Along with people celebrating the holiday, a convoy of protesters opposed to COVID-19 restrictions – who often drape themselves in Canadian flags – are planning events in Ottawa on Friday. But the National War Memorial, which was the site of a large gathering Thursday evening, was quiet early on Canada Day as a handful of visitors took photos.
Small lineups of people were screened by metal detectors at the entrances to Parliament Hill as a calm but celebratory crowd wandered through downtown streets that were closed to vehicles.
Trudeau’s official holiday message, released Friday morning, described Canada as strong because of the diversity among its roughly 38 million residents.
“No matter what our faith is, where we were born, what colour our skin is, what language we speak or whom we love, we are all equal members of this great country,” he said. “And today we celebrate the place we all call home.”
In an apparent reference to the treatment of Indigenous people, including at residential schools, the prime minister spoke about Canada’s “historic wrongs,” saying while we can’t change history, we can work to build a better future.
Gov. Gen. Mary Simon released a Canada Day address of her own calling on Canadians to work together to build an inclusive society.
She urged people to be kind to each other, learn from one another and listen to Indigenous Peoples, on whose land we live.
The Governor General is due to give a speech at formal celebrations in Ottawa on Friday, which will also be attended by the prime minister.