Skip to main content

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.

-- Psalm 72:8

Michael Valpy and I may have to consider the possibility that we have lost the battle to sustain the lovely moniker, "The Dominion of Canada" and with it, Dominion Day. In government circles, it reeks too much of WASP exclusivity, is difficult to translate into French, and gives John Diefenbaker too much comfort in his grave. It seems quite incompatible with the "new Canada" that Mr. Valpy has been documenting recently in the pages of The Globe and Mail. We will live in the 21st century.

The title had status in more than our hearts. Funk and Wagnall's New Standard Dictionary of the English Language, 1960, has an entry for "Dominion Day, July 1, the anniversary of the foundation of the Dominion of Canada: a Canadian holiday." Under the word dominion itself, the dictionary lists, "Canada (in full, the Dominion of Canada) since the union of July 1, 1867." This recalls a time not long ago when we commonly referred to the Dominion government, the sense of happiness or aggravation in the Dominion and, of course, Dominion Day. The world at large knew us this way, and so peace lay upon the land.

It was tolerable then -- even when Canada was quite secular and multicultural -- to enjoy the aura of the word's context in the Old Testament of the Bible: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the earth." But we are careful now to avoid such references, even if they arise from a major stream of our culture. To be inclusive is to be generic, it is said.

Of course, the sentiments from the Bible are also incompatible with our social aspirations and with David Suzuki in their admonitions to produce large families and "have dominion . . . over every living thing." That truly was the ethos of 1960, when Funk and Wagnall sanctified Dominion Day. Now we limit our families to fit our more self-indulgent lifestyles, and pretend that our more self-indulgent lifestyles don't threaten the rest of the natural world. We've lost the arrogance or maybe just the good high spirits that the word dominion connotes.

The Constitution Act of 1982 retains "Dominion" as Canada's official title, rooted so intentionally in the Constitution Act of 1867 itself, when Canada was born. But the blood has drained from the body of this language in common parlance, we must admit.

And so La Fête du Canada Day joins all the other corrections to text and titles, so better to express the reality of the present and future. (Funk and Wagnall's shows Canada's national flag as the red ensign, whose transcendence in 1965 was devoutly to be wished.) This is essentially healthy, but does not demean nostalgia for the often richer textures of times past.

We once referred to The Yukon, instead of Yukon, which is the official title now. The Yukon had a much more romantic hue, evoking the remote landscape and exotic history of the place (a la Robert Service) in a way that plain Yukon cannot. "I'm going to Yukon" sounds plain rude compared with the alternative.

So obvious is this that Yukon's official Web site often lapses into The Yukon in describing itself; so much more complete and humane is the image.

Again, it was the presumed association of "the" with colonialism that enervated the title. The Yukon; The Territories; The Lebanon; The Argentine -- all these monikers sounded faintly insulting, as though uttered exclusively by colonial officials with attitudes of congenital superiority.

So we have lost them, and with them the romance they conferred on their


Like the elimination of Canada's baroque and engaging coat of arms from our mailboxes (Oh, John Diefenbaker!), the loss of certain titles and symbols justifies regret, however powerful the rationale.

Dominion Day would have been tomorrow, July 1, when the Canadian Prairies respond like the sea to the wind with their glorious rapeseed fields -- oops, canola fields -- when the offices of Dominion Securities will be closed -- oops, RBC Dominion -- when pilots working for Trans Canada Airlines will vote on its future -- okay, Air Canada -- and the excellent Canadian maple leaf flag will fly proudly beside what looks very much like the red ensign on Ontario's public buildings.

We will roll along with history in its generally improving character, but some things should not change for appearance's sake, and won't. We celebrate Canada Day in the Dominion tomorrow, and are thankful for both.

William Thorsell is director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum.