Did you know that Canada Day used to be called Dominion Day?

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You know that July 1 is Canada Day, the country’s birthday. But did you know that the celebration went through major changes throughout Canada’s history?

Why was it called Dominion Day?

Canada’s first official name was Dominion of Canada, a new country composed of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The name was suggested by one of the Fathers of Confederation, Sir Leonard Tilley (New Brunswick), as early as 1864. Tilley was inspired by Psalm 72 from the Bible, which contains the verse: “dominion from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth”. This phrase perfectly embodied the founders’ vision of building a strong, united country that spanned a continent. The name Dominion of Canada was written into the Constitution and was used officially for about 100 years.

Dominion Day celebrations through the years

The anniversary of Confederation was celebrated in the succeeding years, especially in the four first provinces of Canada, but they were done on a municipal level. Celebrations were marked by bonfires, picnics, parades, pageants and fireworks, much like today, but there was no singular celebration on a federal level. These types of observances continued even after Dominion Day was officially recognized as a public holiday in 1879.

This changed in 1927, the Diamond Jubilee of Dominion Day (the 50th anniversary was actually in 1917, but it was overshadowed by the First World War). A lavish celebration became the first federally sponsored Dominion Day event. It was marked by a nationally simulcast address by then Prime Minister Mackenzie King, followed by a dramatic pageant. Meanwhile, provinces across the country held their own celebrations reflecting their local concepts of Canada. Some had historic floats or elaborate pageants featuring immigrant communities, and others featured First Nations communities in traditional costumes.

In 1958, a federally sponsored Dominion Day was done on Parliament Hill (Ottawa). Activities stressed elements such as the monarchy and the military. There was a speech from the Governor-General, a 21-gun salute, military trooping of the colour and a carillon concert. This was the celebration’s main themes for several years until the late ‘60s, when the idea of Canadian identity shifted into multiculturalism and bilingualism. During the Centennial of Dominion Day (1967), performers across the country were brought in to take part in a televised variety show on Parliament Hill. The show featured performances from various ethnocultural communities, Quebec-based groups, and First Nations groups. The highlight of the Centennial was the cutting of a massive birthday cake by Queen Elizabeth II.

In succeeding celebrations of Dominion Day, attention shifted from Ottawa to the provinces celebrating their centennials. But in the ‘70s, with the movement for Québec sovereignty becoming stronger, Dominion Day celebrations centered in the capital were revived. Ottawa funded national celebrations (which were televised) as well as local celebrations. These events sought to foster national unity. After the 1980 Québec referendum, the government introduced seed funding to events supporting community-based July 1st celebrations.

When was it changed to Canada Day?

Dominion Day was officially changed to Canada Day in 1982. This was done through the passing of Bill C-201, “An Act to Amend the Holidays Act” by Hal Herbert, a Liberal MP from Vaudreuil. This was a controversial move that has been contested by many historians and political figures for many years. In fact, there are still people who are fighting to bring back the use of Dominion Day instead of Canada Day even up to the present.

Issues about the name change ranged from the manner the bill was passed to the displacement of historical significance. Those resistant to the bill noted that it was passed so quickly, with the Liberals taking advantage of a sluggish afternoon with only about 13 Members of Parliament present at the floor of the House of Commons. The bill was passed without the usual debates and deliberations. On the other hand, others say that the term Canada Day is shallow and unimaginative as it is stripped off of its historical roots. They argue that the word “dominion” is uniquely Canadian, putting Dominion Day on equal standing with France’s Bastille Day or the U.S.’s Independence Day.

Meanwhile, supporters of “Canada Day” counter that the term is a more fitting reflection of the country’s independence. They equate the term “dominion” to Canada’s colonial past and ties with England. For them, Canada Day represents the present. It is a term that encompasses an occasion that honours British and French roots while acknowledging the rich contribution of hundreds of other ethnic origins.

How about you? Which do you prefer- Dominion Day or Canada Day?

Sources: Canada Day, Matthew Hayday, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Discover Canada: Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, IRCC; Dominion Day, Canada.ca; and Dominion Day enthusiasts pine for the past, Robin Levinson King, The Star. Retrieved May 14, 2018.

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