Canada Day, observed on July 1st, is a national holiday marking the anniversary of Confederation in 1867, when the British North America Act came into effect. It was originally known as Dominion Day until it was renamed in 1982.
The British North America Act came into effect on 1 July 1867, creating the country of Canada with its initial four provinces of Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In June 1868, Governor General Charles Stanley Monck called for a celebration of the anniversary of Confederation on 1 July 1868. While several communities did organize celebrations on this day, the legal status of Dominion Day as a public holiday was uncertain. In May 1869, a bill to make Dominion Day a public holiday was debated in the House of Commons, but it was withdrawn after several members of Parliament voiced objections. A more successful effort, sponsored by Senator Robert Carrall of British Columbia, passed through Parliament in 1879, making Dominion Day a public holiday.
In the decades following the Second World War, several private members’ and government-sponsored bills were proposed to change the name of Dominion Day, but none succeeded. In July 1982, a private member’s bill to change the name to Canada Day was proposed by Vaudreuil MP Hal Herbert. The bill quickly passed through the House of Commons, and was ratified by the Senate in the fall.
For the first decade following Confederation, some provinces, including Ontario, Québec and Nova Scotia, observed Dominion Day as a de facto holiday. Celebrations tended to be organized at the local or municipal level, and included a wide array of activities, including bonfires, picnics, sporting events, parades and pageants. Fireworks were often the highlight of the evening.
Dominion Day provided an opportunity for communities to express their visions of Canadian identity, and the place of their community within the country. Newspaper editorials published on July 1st often spoke about the country’s history, its place in the world and its prospects for the future. They could also, as was often the case in British Columbia, express concerns about the treatment of individual provinces within Confederation. Locally organized events sometimes provided opportunities for members of marginalized communities to demonstrate their belonging to Canada, while also asserting their community identities. In British Columbia, members of the Chinese and Japanese communities in the early 20th century contributed floats to Dominion Day parades, and members of Indigenous communities participated in sporting events and musical performances.
Celebrated overseas, Dominion Day was a way for Canadians to celebrate their national identity and assert their distinctiveness within the British Empire. During the First World War, Canadian soldiers stationed in the United Kingdom took part in events such as log-rolling exhibitions and baseball games, asserting a rugged Canadian masculinity.
The Diamond Jubilee
Federal government plans to hold a major event to mark the 50th anniversary of Confederation in 1917 were overshadowed by the First World War. As a result, the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1 July 1927, marking the 60th anniversary of Confederation were the first major federally sponsored Dominion Day activities. The centrepiece event for the day was a simulcast radio broadcast — the first of its kind in Canada — featuring an address by Prime Minister Mackenzie King and a dramatic pageant. Communities across Canada marked the Diamond Jubilee in various ways that emphasized local conceptions of Canada.
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