Opinion – Independence Day?

By: Alex Ripley

This is the time of year for big, national celebrations. July 1st marks Canada Day, and today, on July 4th, our neighbors to the south celebrate the 237th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The trend continues internationally: France celebrates Bastille Day on July 14th, and observances on July 28th traditionally mark Peru’s 1821 independence from Spain. Summer, it seems, is a time for patriotism.

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I’m not a zealous patriot, to be honest. So much of my academic work has focused on the decline of the nation state that I now find it somewhat difficult to get excited about or proud of an entity which has lost much its relevance to the global system. But when patriotism offers an opportunity for people to come together to set and celebrate common goals, achievements, and histories, I can get on board. The problem is, you need to know exactly what you’re celebrating.

The American Independence Day commemorates an event which can be understood to be a turning point in the birth of the sovereign United States. The Declaration of Independence was a document imbued with confidence:  it announced, in no uncertain terms, that the thirteen colonies had unilaterally separated from the British mother-ship and would henceforth form their own union. This document was drafted out of a spirit of necessity in the eyes of its authors. Wrote Thomas Jefferson, “I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America.” The name of the holiday reflects the intent of the document: the road to mature statehood would be long and winding, but no few can dispute that July 4, 1776 was the beginning of an independent United States of America. 

Canada Day celebrates a very different historical event. On July 1, 1867, the British North America Act, 1867 (today known as the Constitution Act, 1867) was formally enacted. This served allow the Provinces of Canada (Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick to be  ”[…] federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom […]” [1] The extra six Provinces and three Territories which comprise modern Canada are given only brief and conditional mention: “[…] it is expedient that Provision be made for the eventual Admission into the Union of other Parts of British North America.” [2] Like so much in Canadian history, the BNA Act was less a revolution than an evolution. Let’s pick it apart and find out what Canadians are actually celebrating on July 1st.

As anyone who took grade school history ought to know, Canada prior to 1867 was a disparate collection of Provinces. (Some would argue this is still the case). These Provinces had little in common, other than that they were all colonies of the British Empire and recognized Queen Victoria as their monarch and Head of State. They had varying degrees of autonomy, little in the way of shared history, and widely differing economic bases. Much like today, Quebec was home to a Francophone majority, while the rest of British North America was largely (but not wholly) English-speaking.

The united Province of Canada, with its rich agricultural lands and flourishing industrial cities (e.g. Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal) had an interest in gaining cheap and easy access to the continental and worldwide British colonial markets. The Atlantic provinces, meanwhile, stood to gain more from incentives to marine-related industry, the continuation of the old tradition of transoceanic trade, and the bolstering of north-south links with the New England states. [3] The events of 1867 began at the 1864 Charlottetown Conference as a discussion surrounding an economic union in the Maritime provinces. The inclusion of the Province of Canada in the deliberations made the eventual pact into something much larger (and much more favorable in its nature and provisions to Quebec and, particularly, to Ontario).

While the British North America Act may have drawn the existing colonies together under a unified umbrella of governance in Ottawa, it can scarcely be considered a “independence” -like event. Canada wouldn’t have control over its own foreign policy until 1931, the beloved (less so by this author) maple leaf flag wouldn’t be flown until 1965, and the Constitution would not be repatriated until 1982. And yet, many Canadians think of July 1, 1867 as the day on which Canada as we know it came into being. They think of Canada Day as simply a  less boastful Independence Day.  ”Canada’s Birthday” and “Happy Birthday Canada” are frequently seen in the media around July 1st. Every nation requires fine-tuning, but some — like the United States — can trace their sovereignty to a single day, a single event. Canada wasn’t born. Canada grew up slowly, nurtured by British, French, Aboriginal — and indeed, American — teachers and caregivers.

There are many events in history which rival the passage of the BNA Act in their relevance to the creation of the Canada we know today. The victory of British forces at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759; the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the subsequent years of war between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies; the Upper and Lower Canada rebellions of 1837; the achievement of responsible government in Nova Scotia in 1848; Lord Elgin’s assent to the Rebellion Losses Bill in 1849; the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864; the London Conference of 1866; the Statute of Westminster in 1931; the creation of Canadian citizenship in 1947; the institution of the Supreme Court as the Court of Last Resort in 1949; the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982: all these events were of substantial importance in shaping modern Canada, and yet they are scarcely known by many, and seldom celebrated.

Canada Day celebrates something important. The BNA Act was the glue that initially brought Canada’s first four constituent units together. But it wasn’t the beginning. It wasn’t the birth of the nation. Canadians have a tendency to think of July 1st as a birthday, or as an independence day. Instead, we should use July 1st to consider all those meaningful events which have brought the Dominion to where it is today. We should take to time celebrate what we were, are, and will become. And we should take pause to remember that, in Canada, change is not sweeping, but gradual. Canada and the United States are two examples of how to build a country. They both evolved differently, in the early stages, and both turned out remarkably well. Let’s just not get the meanings of our respective national holidays confused.

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