There were celebrations that first day, July 1, 1867, for the new “Dominion of Canada.” But neither the date, nor the name nor the designation was a sure thing even a few months before. The celebrations were hardly a spontaneous public outpouring.
After all, confederation had been strictly a political process that took place in the backrooms of Quebec City and Charlottetown, with the colonial politicians being urged on by their distant masters in London. “Here in this house,” wrote Agnes Macdonald, the new prime minister’s wife, “the atmosphere is so awfully political that sometimes I think that the very flies hold Parliament on the kitchen tablecloths.”
John A. Macdonald himself was a late convert to the idea of federalism. He was no visionary, orator or wordsmith like some founders elsewhere, but once the process had begun, he was what the times demanded: a persuasive, charming pragmatist. Eventually, he came to believe in the national enterprise. He spoke of founding “a great kingdom, in connection with the British monarchy and under the British flag.” His preferred designation, “Kingdom of Canada,” was indeed written into the first revision of the confederation bill. But the word “kingdom” offended some Americans, who could not abide the idea of the colonies on their northern border uniting “under the imperial rule of an English prince.” Not for the first or last time, the British caved in to American pressure and the delegates were instructed to find an alternative.
It is said that Leonard Tilley, the New Brunswick delegate to the London meetings, found the inspiration in his daily Bible reading, from Psalm 72:8 (King James version): “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea.” (No mention was made of the rest of the line: “and from the river unto the ends of the earth.”) The other delegates found the word “dominion” appropriate and it was suggested to Queen Victoria, who had been invited by the Quebec Resolutions to determine the “rank and name” of the new nation. She accepted and with this the British North American bill was complete.
The name “Canada” never seemed to have been in question, though it was questioned by some. The famous British journalist Walter Bagehot preferred “Northland” or “Anglia.” Fortunately he had no say. There were alternate names to honour the Queen herself (Victorialand) or her late husband (Albertsland) and other suggestions included Borealia, Cabotia, Mesoplagia, Transatlantia and the acronym “Efisga,” derived from England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and Aborigines. One shudders at the prospect of referring to “Efisganians.” (See Let’s Call it…Efisga.)
Canada was by most accounts a local name derived from the Huron-Iroquoian kanata, meaning something like village, and it dated from the voyages of Jacques Cartier in 1535. It first appeared on a world map c 1547, referring to an area north of the gulf and river St Lawrence. The name Canada was used loosely as a synonym for New France as the territory pushed ever westward and southward. The name became official with the Constitutional Act of 1791, which divided the Old Province of Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada. It eventually fulfilled Tilley’s phrase and was applied from sea to sea (and to sea) as the country expanded. The notable American historian Samuel Eliot Morison once remarked that “never, since the Roman Empire,” has such a local name received such a vast extension as “Canada.”
The birth date of July 1 was not Macdonald’s first choice. The confederation bill only passed March 8 and there was so much to do: pick a cabinet, distribute offices, etc. He preferred July 14, but deferred and decided to make July 1 a holiday. He sent out instructions that the garrisons around the country fire royal salutes and hoist royal standards.
Almost every account of that day includes comment on the propitiously fine weather. It was a warm, clear day with a brilliant cobalt sky. “On aimera à se rappeler quand la Confédération aura subi l’epreuve du temps, combien a été beau le jour de son inauguration,” wrote the editor of the Journal des Trois Rivières. Aside from weather reports, numerous Canadian newspapers carried verse that was more doggerel than poetry: “As moments now that do this instant flow/That these vast lands should yet in one unite/For some great purpose of his mind of might/To well combine the good of Europe’s powers/Reject the bad from these fair shores of ours” – Ottawa Daily Citizen, July 1867.
The military were the designated noise-makers for the celebrations, firing off a salute of 101 guns in Ottawa just after midnight, while the church bells pealed and the bonfires crackled. Early the next morning many communities were awakened by royal salutes. Twenty-one guns roared at Saint John at 4 PM, and at Fort Henry at 6. At 8 PM a salvo was ignited at the grand parade ground in Halifax. In Toronto, the highlight was the presence of the 13th Hussars, the “Noble Six Hundred” of Balaclava, newly arrived. They drilled and fought imaginary battles. The Globe also reported that at 6 PM an immense ox would be roasted at the foot of Church Street and the meat distributed to the poor.
People gathered in the city squares, markets, parks, and parade grounds. From hastily erected platforms and scaffolds the local mayors, reeves, or wardens read the Queen’s Proclamation. Then at once the bands erupted in “God Save the Queen,” followed by three cheers of hip hurray. In Quebec City the mayor, in his official robes, read the Proclamation on the Esplanade. That was followed by a feu de joie and three hearty cheers for the Dominion. Later in the day excursionists boarded the S.P. Bidder for a trip around Îsle d’Orléans and a grand ball was given on board H.M.S. Aurora.
In Ottawa, John A. Macdonald made sure that he reached Parliament Hill in good time, before 11 AM. He was now officially prime minister, not elected but chosen back in March by Lord Monck. No one seemed to object to the choice. Charles Stanley Monck was an obscure figure, from an aristocratic family in Ireland that had fallen on hard times. He admitted frankly that he took the job of governor general “for the money.” Confederation had been his aim as much as any of the Canadians. An outsider, Monck seemed dull and he lacked style. Throughout his seven-year tenure, Jacques Monet wrote of him, “he seems never to have sought popularity, nor ever to have found it.” He finally arrived on Parliament Hill, dressed in plain black clothes—if Canada could not be a kingdom, presumably it could not have someone decked out like a viceroy.
The ceremony was perfunctory and unremarkable. Then to everyone’s surprise Monck announced that honours would be bestowed on George-Étienne Cartier, Alexander Tilloch Galt, Charles Tupper, Samuel Leonard Tilley, William McDougall and W. P. Howland (Companions of the Bath). Somewhat controversially, Macdonald was made the more prestigious Knight Commander of the Bath.
The more romantic observers that day saw hope in the brilliant light of the day. Not everyone was impressed, especially those dissenters in the Maritimes and Quebec. The young and fair Nova Scotia had been forced into marriage with the “old, crabbed and bankrupt” suitor Canada, reported the Pictou County Advocate on July 3. By all accounts the day had been a failure, they claimed, rather a day of humiliation. In Halifax, there were empty flagstaffs and small crowds. In Truro two black flags were displayed in prominent positions. It was all a big “fizzle” wrote the Morning Chronicle (Halifax), reporting that only 600 people of more than 30,000 in the city attended the event, about the same as “a decent funeral.” An effigy of Charles Tupper, one of the architects of confederation, was burned on the waterfront, alongside a live rat.
For the rest, the populace enjoyed the day off and once the proclamations were read, went off to play cricket, to sail, scull, race or picnic. With darkness finally, the fireworks began, the Roman candles and rockets stirring strangely as they do today. There is no unalloyed joy in life, but it does sometimes occur among the young. In Hamilton that day a young girl recorded in her diary the thrill of the shooting stars and the rush of fresh cool air that marked the night. “This is the First of July,” she wrote, “in the year eighteen hundred and sixty seven. My father said ‘always remember this day. You are a very lucky little girl to be a child in Canada today.’”
No provision was made at the time to celebrate confederation annually. On June 20, 1868 Lord Monck issued a proclamation calling upon “all Her Majesty’s loving subjects throughout Canada” to celebrate the first anniversary, on the 1st of July, 1868. Then on May 15, 1879, Royal Assent was given to “An Act to make the first day of July a Public Holiday by the name of Dominion Day.” Special celebrations were held in 1917 for the 50th anniversary, in 1927, to mark the “Diamond Jubilee,” and of course in the Centennial year, 1967, marking probably the most celebratory and confident mood Canadians have ever felt. The Centennial Flame, which was lit by Lester Pearson (“Happy birthday Canada!”) to launch those celebrations, has been left alight ever since.
The name “Dominion Day” was extinguished by law in October 1982 amidst all the constitution making and repatriation. To many, “Dominion” smacked too much of Canada’s colonial past and was too closely associated with the monarchy. But it must be said that the new legal name “Canada Day” (French: “Fête du Canada”) seems a meaningless denial of history. One cannot imagine the Americans calling their “Independence Day” “America Day,” or the French changing “Bastille Day” to “France Day.” It is the historical event of “Confederation” that we celebrate and that is what we should call its day.