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  • Writer's pictureDouglas W. Judson

Mark Canada Day with community aspiration, not colonial heritage

Another Canada Day has come and gone. This year, Canadians remain confronted with questions – and for some, discomfort – about what type of holiday it is, and how to mark the occasion in the future.

Every Child Matters marchers on July 1, 2021.
Every Child Matters marchers in Fort Frances on July 1, 2021. (Photo: Grand Council Treaty #3)

It was just over a year ago that people around the world were shocked by the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Since then, other sites across the country have been investigated, and the numbers have climbed higher – reconfirming the undeniable horrors described in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

In many communities last year, red and white July 1 parades gave way to orange-clad marches of solidarity with the Every Child Matters movement. That these events took place on Canada Day, no less, stood as a watershed moment in Canadians’ collective awareness of the ugliness of their colonial history. Debates which have challenged deep-seated worldviews – and for some, personal guilt – about what type of country Canada has been, seemed, for a moment, to be settled.

Protesters defaced the statue of Eggerton Ryerson in Toronto in 2021. Ryerson University has since been renamed Toronto Metropolitan University.
Protesters defaced the statue of Eggerton Ryerson in Toronto in 2021. Ryerson University has since been renamed Toronto Metropolitan University. (Photo: Samuel Engelking, Now Toronto)

Fast-forward to 2022, and some Canadians have wondered whether those orange shirts were a temporary observance (like so many things we adopted during the pandemic) or if a more seismic shift had rocked the spirit of our national holiday. While some have gotten caught up in the patriotic hyperbole of social media, for many more, the celebratory nature of Canada Day is now decidedly controversial.

What Canada Day means and stands for is an important question because the answer now speaks to our character and the sincerity of the commitments we have made to reconciliation. It’s also a politically urgent question because a definitive answer can short-circuit Canada’s karaoke right from importing Republican whitewashing of racism into our national story.

Tributes left on the steps of the provincial legislature in Victoria, B.C. July 2021.
Tributes left on the steps of the provincial legislature in Victoria, B.C. July 2021. (Photo: Douglas Judson)

But the question is not whether Canada Day is a day of shame, atonement, or celebration. That question misses the point. Canada Day has always been more about progress and ideals than about being held captive to our heritage. Canada Day has never been merely an epitaph on a historical event, like a seminal battle or conquest or the inking of the Declaration of Independence. It has always been aspirational – a celebration of the type of country we hope to build.

At least, that is how most people have understood it, even though our awareness of history has changed over time. My own earliest Canada Day memories involve going to the annual parade in Barwick, Ontario, in which – inevitably – my grandfather would enlist us to drive any number of antique tractors. This convoy – of literal symbols of Canada’s homesteader history – feted events we now know were not positive for everyone. But it also reflected a community’s pride in the undeniable hard work of their forebears to tame the frontier and harsh winters, laying the foundation of the communities we know today. A different and limited understanding of history, to be sure, but still a marker of community growth and progress, in the terms it was understood.

Today I am attending July 1 events with many of the same people. There are rainbows and orange shirts, among some of the usual pomp. Many are using the opportunity to teach their children about inclusion and diversity and the mistakes of the past. It is still about community, but with a renewed understanding about who ought to be included in those communities. In our own way, we are imparting Canada’s story with a view to shape the future, just as Barwick’s homage to agriculture did, in its own way.

The constant question of Canada Day is how we mobilize our knowledge of our heritage to move forward. Obviously, our national goals and awareness have changed dramatically over time. (The holiday itself was renamed in 1982 from “Dominion Day” to Canada Day to shake off the imperial branding.)

A Canada Day parade float in 2022.
A Canada Day parade float in 2022. (Photo: Submitted Photo, Fort Frances Times)

And just as we recognize birthdays as milestones which open new opportunities and stages in our own lives – “Canada’s Birthday”, as it is often known – ought to be about our wishes for the chapter ahead more than romanticizing an imperfect, and even violent and exclusionary heritage. We can recognize the hard work and determination that built settler communities, while also recognizing that the circumstances which enabled them were harmful for Indigenous people, and that that trauma lives on today.

We can acknowledge those misdeeds by committing to taking actions which build more diverse, equal, and inclusive communities. If patriotism is about pride and service to our country, those commitments and the overdue actions which should follow them, ought to be core to a modern conception of Canada Day.

Wherever and however we individually choose to recognize this day in the years to come, perhaps what we can hold in common is the desire to build community, empowered by a greater and growing understanding of the place we have been.

Douglas W. Judson is a lawyer and community advocate based in Northwestern Ontario/Treaty #3 territory. Connect with him at or @dwjudson.

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