For most Canadians, July 1 is just one day in a long weekend; a day that, when it falls on a Sunday, magically triggers a statutory holiday on Monday; a day to barbecue and to get in or on or near the water; to kick back and enjoy the start of a Canadian summer that never comes early enough and always ends too soon; a day to take the kids to the fireworks, which are happening on this day because, um, well, oh … Canada?
This is not a country that gets overly sentimental about history, or pretentious about its place in it. It’s the national day, but most of us don’t make too big a deal about the whys or the wherefores. You’re giving us the day off? We’re taking the day off.
Other countries have national holidays that mark The Big Moment they made a violent break with the past. The Americans have Independence Day, the day the Thirteen Colonies signed the Declaration of Independence, began a war to separate from Great Britain and created a new country. The French have Bastille Day, the day the French Revolution started and the monarchy started ending.
For many people, those histories seem more clear and vivid than ours. They certainly make for more dramatic TV and movie adaptations. The days the French and Americans are celebrating were the start of abrupt, radical and bloody – extremely bloody – rejections of the past. Change came through the barrel of a gun.
July 1, 1867 was nothing like that. It wasn’t a revolution, it was an evolution. It wasn’t violent, it was peaceful. Something new was accepted without something old being rejected. A group of statesmen who differed on many things nevertheless, through negotiation and compromise, made a deal. It was an agreement about incremental change and improvement. Nobody was shot. Nobody went to the guillotine.
The Constitution created in 1867 contains no soaring words, just a lot of sensible ideas. The American constitution begins with a thundering “We the People”; the Declaration of Independence ends with its signatories promising to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” The first word of the British North America Act? “Whereas.”
Instead of being the all-caps Day When Everything Violently Changed, July 1 was instead the day when something very Canadian happened: It was the beginning of a process. In fact, Confederation wasn’t even the beginning, since Canada already existed before 1867. And it wasn’t the end, since the process continued, and continues today.
So is July 1 Canada’s version of America’s Independence Day? Does the question even make sense? The challenge for Canada in 1867 was not how one group of people could violently sever ties with another group of people, but how several groups of people – English-speaking and French, Catholic and Protestant, European and Indigenous, and eventually people of all faiths and from all nations – could peacefully live together. The year 1867 is not Canada’s 1776. Looking at it through the American lens distorts it.
And as for becoming independent, that too was a process, and a long one, lasting from before 1867 all the way through to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982.
Contrast a history of seizing independence versus peacefully, gradually and amicably achieving it. Contrast a sudden, bloody revolution versus a lengthy, peaceful evolution. In memory, the former is more exciting. For the living, the latter is more humane.
Still, a lot of us think our history is dull and forgettable, since it involves so little of the cathartic violence that countries with “real” histories have. But if you think about it, that’s what is most important and inspiring about Canadian history.
This is not a country without ideals; since the beginning of the last century, more than 100,000 Canadians have died defending them. But this is a country that has been able to compromise with itself. Canada is a place that has succeeded, and that continues to succeed, because enough of the people have been reasonable enough, enough of the time.
Even though Canada has always contained multiple and clashing visions of what the country should be, we’ve had civil arguments instead of civil war. And instead of fighting in the streets, we’ve had loyal opposition at the ballot box. Not many places can say that, and not many have kept it up for a century and a half. Maybe what Canada Day should really be called is Thanksgiving Day.