How Canada Day came to be – a short history lesson

(Ottawa 1867. Photo: National Archives of Canada)

Midnight, June 30, 1867 – Bells of church towers across New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario (Upper Canada) and Quebec (Lower Canada) resonated after receiving an Order to do so. On a sunny July 1, 1867 at 12:00 noon, a Proclamation (the British North American Act) from the Queen was read in all of the notable towns to announce the birth of a new country – the Dominion of Canada. Ottawa, the new country’s capital and named so by Queen Victoria, was quaking under the discharge of 101 guns to salute the occasion. Celebrations took place across this new country well into the night – it was a new beginning for the four provinces.

Macdonald’s new wife Agnes wrote in her diary marking the day, “This new Dominion of ours came noisily into existence on the 1st, and the very newspapers look hot and tired, with the weight of Announcements and Cabinet lists. Here – in this house – the atmosphere is so awfully political that sometimes I think the very flies hold Parliaments on the kitchen tablecloths.” (Courtesy of CBC Learning – A People’s History)

(On July 1, 1867 Canadians celebrated the birth of their country. Photo: Queen’s University Archives)

(Governor General Charles Monck. Photo: National Archives of Canada)

Our first Governor General of Canada was Lord Charles Stanley Monck. As one of his first official duties, he approached John A. MacDonald to request that he be the first Prime Minister of this new country. MacDonald through his determined labours, brought together the former British Colonies, along with his infallible talent to garner a resolution during the process of establishing Canada. The Governor General immediately arranged to have MacDonald sworn in. As well, William McDougall, E.P. Howland, Tilley, Cartier and Galt as Finance Minister were sworn in. By noon, Queen Victoria had named MacDonald a Knight Commander of Bath and the other Cabinet members named Companions of the Bath. The merging of the four colonies was now official and the Canadian Parliament was formed. This time was also known as the MacDonald era in Canadian politics. The official elections were held on September 18th, 1867 and on November 7th, 1867 Parliament convened with John A MacDonald as the victorious Prime Minister.

(John A. MacDonald-the new Canada’s first Prime Minister. Photo: National Archives of Canada)

3.3 million citizens of English, French and Irish descent were brought together to make up the new country. Montreal brought approximately 100,000 citizens; then Toronto and Quebec City with about 60,000 each; and 17,000 from Ottawa – the new Capital and an old logging operation town. The majority of citizens (about 81%) lived on farms or in the countryside and industry played an insignificant part of the economy overall during this time.

(Ottawa was designated as capital of the Dominion of Canada. The New Parliament Buildings. Photo: National Archives of Canada)

‘Dominion Day’, as it was formerly known, marked the Constitution Act of 1867. The Act imparted a considerable amount of independence from the British Commonwealth, but complete independence was not introduced until 1982 with the signing of the new ‘Canadian Constitution’. Held in 1917, the first official celebration took place honouring the 50th birthday of Canada.

A Private Member’s Bill prepared in 1946 by Phileas Cote, a Quebec House of Commons member, requested that Dominion Day be renamed as Canada Day. Passed by the House of Commons, the Senate of the time felt the day should be called ‘National Holiday of Canada’ and recommended this to the House of Commons. No agreement could be reached, so needless to say, the Bill was defeated on the Order Paper.

(Antoine-Phileas Cote, LL.B. Photo: Parliament of Canada)

On July 1, 1958, the Diefenbaker government recognized Canada Day by conducting a ‘trooping of the colour’ on Parliament Hill. 1967, Canada’s Centennial year, was the first nationwide commemoration advocating our pride and nationalism. Events were televised in the 1960’s as the Canada Day celebrations increased. 1980’s brought funding for Canada Day events in communities.

(Canadians from across Canada celebrate Centennial Year on Canada Day 1967, Wellington Street, Ottawa, Ontario. Photo: National Archives of Canada)

In 1982, the Canada Act was passed which lifted any residual dependence on the British Commonwealth. The same year on October 27, a unanimous vote in the House of Commons finally made Canada Day official. This officialdom brought about considerable transformation of the celebrations even though Canadians had for decades acknowledged the holiday.

Some of the more noteworthy July 1 occurrences in Canada are:

  • July 1, 1927 – the Canadian National Railway initiated the first national radio connection
  • July 1, 1958 – the first nationwide broadcast was aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
  • July 1, 1958 – the Coffer Dam was blown up to create the St. Lawrence Seaway
  • July 1, 1966 – brought the first colour television transmission in Canada
  • July 1, 1967 – saw the inauguration of the Governor General’s Order of Canada
  • July 1, 1980 – ‘O Canada’ was officially named as Canada’s national anthem

1 thought on “How Canada Day came to be – a short history lesson”

Leave a Reply