ANALYSIS: Attempts to Cancel Canada Day the Latest Escalation in Decades-Old Trend, Say Historians

ANALYSIS: Attempts to Cancel Canada Day the Latest Escalation in Decades-Old Trend, Say Historians
People watch fireworks above Ashbridges Bay during Canada Day festivities in Toronto on July 1, 2019. (Cole Burston/Getty Images)
Tara MacIsaac

The trend of questioning the Canadian identity has escalated to the point that some major cities have attempted to cancel or actually cancelled Canada Day celebrations. Historians say the trend's roots go back decades, but it has gathered significantly more momentum in recent years.

“We have had politicized discussions about our national identity many, many times,” Christopher Dummitt, a history professor at Trent University, told The Epoch Times.

Two examples are when the flag was inaugurated in 1965, and when Dominion Day was renamed Canada Day in 1982. In those instances, it was about “what kind of Canada do you want,” Dummitt said.

“What’s different about this time … is the way in which it’s the attachment to Canada at all that is being questioned.”

In some ways, it’s the endpoint for a long-standing Canadian tendency toward “self-abasement” and giving up the majority’s traditions to accommodate the minority, he said.

A Red Ensign flag is seen in an undated handout photo. (The Canadian Press/HO-Canadian Legion)
A Red Ensign flag is seen in an undated handout photo. (The Canadian Press/HO-Canadian Legion)

For example, Canada has done away with many British symbols over the years, motivated by an idea that Canadians either celebrate the country’s British past or celebrate its diverse ethnicities with new symbols. It’s seen as an “either-or” choice, Dummitt said.

But there has always been a segment of Canadians who stand against this absolutist choice or the need for self-abasement, believing that all Canadians can be celebrated without downplaying the traditions of some.

In the current struggle over Canada Day, this segment has had some success.

Reversed Decisions to Cancel Celebrations

In recent weeks, Calgary and Toronto reversed their decisions to cancel certain Canada Day celebrations this year following a public outcry.
Calgary officials had announced the cancellation of fireworks, due in part to concerns about indigenous Truth and Reconciliation and the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Immigration Act, commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which has been denounced as having excluded Chinese from coming to Canada. Toronto had cited cost concerns in cancelling its fireworks.

The push against Canada's national day of celebration seems to have calmed this year in Winnipeg, which saw historical statues toppled on Canada Day 2021 by those expressing outrage over colonialism and past treatment of indigenous people. Statues were also toppled in Toronto and Victoria, B.C., that year.

In 2022, Winnipeg’s The Forks North Portage Partnership rebranded Canada Day as “New Day” and cancelled fireworks. “We acknowledge the anger and hurt indigenous communities are feeling, and we know we have a role to play in the healing process,” said CEO Sara Stasiuk in a statement at the time.
The Forks received strong criticism from some quarters, with then-mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk getting particular media attention for her tweet: "On July 1st, I will be proudly celebrating Canada’s birthday because I love my country unconditionally. I guess I can’t do that at the Forks because I’ve recently learned that it’s canceled. PS – I’m currently accepting invitations to all actual Canada Day parties.”
This year, fireworks and celebrations will be held at Assiniboia Downs, a horse race track in Winnipeg, but it seems there will be no festivities at all at The Forks on July 1. Its calendar lists neither Canada Day nor "New Day" celebrations in July.
Vancouver is the only major Canadian city where big changes to Canada Day celebrations will remain. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, which is a federal agency, has announced that the day will be rebranded as "Canada Together" and fireworks are cancelled indefinitely.

The Rising 'Bobo' Class

Driving these calls for change is a certain “elite educated class," Dummitt said, noting that historically, it has been a middle-class liberal view that Canada should leave behind its traditions in the name of inclusivity.
When the Canadian Red Ensign was replaced by the current maple leaf flag in 1965, there was a fractious national debate and many stood against the change. They wanted to keep Britain's Union Jack as part of Canada's flag alongside the fleur-de-lis and other symbols, explained Dummitt.

"There were those who really wanted to celebrate Canada's French traditions, its British traditions, the traditions of the new Canadians at the time—people from Ukraine and Italy and European Jews who had come here. They want to have all those things," he said.

The statue of Canada’s founding prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, is removed from a park in his hometown of Kingston, Ont., on June 18, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Lars Hagberg)
The statue of Canada’s founding prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, is removed from a park in his hometown of Kingston, Ont., on June 18, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Lars Hagberg)

"Instead, the liberal establishment said, 'To want to keep British symbols in the Canadian flag or French symbols, that's backwards and that's bigoted. We need to have something different.' And so in some ways, that's what's happening here again."

For the first time, however, some of this liberal middle-class that still continued to celebrate Canada are abandoning that tradition. And an upper-middle-class "educated elite," Dummitt said, sees the world through a cosmopolitan lens where connection to a specific place no longer matters.

“If you’re a working-class person living in small-town Ontario or Saskatchewan, you’re not living in the same world that … cosmopolitan cultural elites live in,” he said. “You’re from a place—you’re from a real, specific place—and this is the way in which class becomes caught up in these cultural war issues.”

Dummitt said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is part of this elite class, and that’s why he famously said in a 2015 statement to The New York Times, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” and that “makes us the first post-national state.”

Brock University historian John Bonnett also thinks that a "dominant class" seems to have the most control over Canada's institutions.

"In the wake of the internet, a new dominant class arose and has taken control of our various institutions, whether it's universities, government, bureaucracy, the media, or what have you," he told The Epoch Times.

There are various names for this class, Bonnett said, citing a name coined by political and cultural commentator David Brooks, the "bobo" class. Combining "bourgeois" and "bohemian," it refers to a corporate upper class.

This class is driving the call for cancelling Canada Day, he said, and it is potent.

"I think the great political challenge of the 21st century is going to be finding a way to reckon with the amount of power that this class has."

Bonnett likened the situation to a rise in the 1960s of Marxist intellectuals in the West who were against Western culture. He said they convinced the public, for example, that Japan was about to surrender before the United States used the atomic bomb, and thus there had been no need to use the bomb. But documentation from the time shows that Japan had no intention of surrendering until the bomb dropped.

A Lot to Be Proud Of

Bonnett urges Canadians to read up on history from a variety of sources to get a more accurate picture and not put absolute faith in any particular historian or group of historians. "Historians don't merit that faith," he said.

Historiography is the study of how history is recorded, of looking through a critical lens at the various sources of information. He said this type of critical thinking is important.

Bonnett said Canada has made its mistakes, but it also has a lot to be proud of.

"We care about human rights, we try to correct our mistakes, we are a democracy," Bonnett said.

Dummitt said one moment in Canadian history that stands out to him as a point of pride is "the story of responsible government, which is the great story of the 1840s."

Canadians, or the "British North Americans" of the time, convinced a British governor that the budding nation should govern itself.

"We won a parliamentary system from the British, and we did it without fighting for the most part," he said. "It was won by constant, slow negotiation and discussion. ... In some ways, it's an incredibly boring story, but it's also an important story."

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