What will Canada Day celebrations look like this year without the usual fireworks and festivities that typically mark the day? Can we look to the past for ideas on how to foster Canadian community from a distance?
Prof. Matthew Hayday (below) studies the political and cultural history of post-war Canada and has published about the history and evolution of Canada Day as well as other national and provincial holidays.
Hayday says there are many ways to hold a virtual national celebration; in fact, it’s been done many times in the past.
“Canada Day and its predecessor Dominion Day are meant to celebrate Canada, but we’re talking about a country that is thousands of kilometres wide, so most Canadians will only ever meet a fraction of their fellow citizens. Yet there is a rich history of ‘distanced celebrations’ that goes back decades,” he said.
The first large-scale celebration of July 1st was in 1927, for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation, and technology stepped in to help connect Canadians.
“It was the early age of radio in Canada,” Hayday said, “and so the federal government organized a coast-to-coast simulcast broadcast for the day, including a speech from the prime minister and a series of musical acts. For Canadians who didn’t own their own a radio, amplifiers were set up in public squares and halls across the country.”
From the late-1950s onwards, television has been the main medium to create this sense of a shared celebration.
The scale of the broadcast has varied over the years, but the most impressive, according to Hayday, was in 1977, when virtually all of Canada’s 844 radio and television stations broadcast the three-hour extravaganza that brought Canadians to locations including the Springhill, N.S. home of Anne Murray, a Regina stage to hear Bruce Cockburn, and the Broken Head Reserve in Manitoba to see Buffy Ste-Marie. Just under half of Canada’s population (11.7 million people) tuned in.
This year, the federal Department of Canadian Heritage is hosting “virtual” celebrations, drawing inspiration from this well-trodden path of past years to allow Canadians to tune in online to a daytime and evening show.
It may not be the same as being there live, Hayday said, but events like this can foster a sense of national community. He cautioned, though, that although Canada Day means “celebration” for many, there is an equally rich history of contestation.
Since the origins of the holiday, July 1st has been a focal point for groups who want to draw attention to the ways Canada’s upbeat messaging often belies fundamental problems, including its treatment of racial minorities and Indigenous peoples.
“Indeed, in 2020, the federal government plans to mark the 150th anniversary of the creation of the province of Manitoba – a province that has its origins in the Red River Resistance organized by Louis Riel, the Métis and their supporters against the callous way their interests were ignored by the federal government,” he said.
Challenging and contesting Canada is important, said Hayday, noting he sees nothing wrong with using the country’s national day as a mechanism to highlight the way the country has failed, and continues to fail, many of the people who live within its borders.