The fraught history of Canada Day, a holiday that marks the nation’s birth

On July 1, 1867, three British colonies merged to form Canada. But independence would prove elusive for decades to come.

Canada Day will be muted this year in the wake of the discovery of hundreds of mass graves on the sites of former Indian Residential Schools. Established in the 1880s, these schools were designed to assimilate Indigenous children into white culture.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike have called to cancel the national holiday—which takes place on July 1—and replace it with a day of mourning, reckoning, and solidarity. (Residential school survivors reflect on a brutal legacy: ‘That could’ve been me.’)

But what exactly is Canada Day? Although three-quarters of Canadians believe Canada Day marks Canada’s independence, the holiday actually honors the nation’s birth. Here’s a look at the history of the holiday—and why it is so fraught.

Early colonial history

The land that became Canada was long inhabited by Iroquois and other Indigenous people. In the late 15th century, however, European colonization began with the arrival of explorers and fur traders. France established the first permanent settlement in 1604, which eventually transformed into the influential colonial outpost known as New France. Great Britain soon followed with settlements in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Hudson Bay.

The Iroquois helped the European settlers navigate unfamiliar waterways and forests. They trade their pelts for the settlers’ goods and played an integral role in the region’s fur trade. But the arrival of the Europeans exacted a high toll: Many Indigenous people lost their lives to the diseases the settlers had brought with them while the fur trade ignited conflict among Indigenous tribes and their European allies through much of the 17th century. (The European colonies that formed the cradle of modern Canada.)

Meanwhile, the European colonies had begun to jockey for power and land. Throughout the early 18th century, each country sought to expand its territory, resulting in the Seven Years’ War in 1756. In 1763, the war ended, and France turned its holdings over to the British.

The birth of Canada

By the mid-19th century, the land was divided into three British colonies: the province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Fueled by the fear of possible American aggression and the desire for the economic advantages of free trade, colonial politicians and the public began debating the idea of merging the colonies into one self-governing confederation. With British support, representatives from the colonies began to negotiate the terms of their unification in 1864.

In 1867, the British Parliament passed the British North America Act, creating a new country known as Canada composed of four provinces. These included New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, while the former colony Canada was split into two provinces—Ontario and Quebec. The law established both federal and provincial governments in the new country and formed the basis for Canada’s constitution. It went into effect on July 1, 1867—now celebrated as Canada Day. (See our favorite pictures from the Great White North.)

Canada’s journey toward independence

But the country’s journey toward independence had only just begun. The new law had established Canada as a semi-independent “Dominion” of the British Empire; the new polity did not yet have full autonomy. In fact, the earliest celebrations of July 1 were called Dominion Day rather than Canada Day.

But while three-quarters of Canadians believe Canada Day marks Canada’s independence, the country’s journey had only just begun. The new law had established Canada as a semi-independent “Dominion” of the British Empire; the new polity did not yet have full autonomy. In fact, the earliest celebrations of July 1 were called Dominion Day rather than Canada Day.

Despite the title—which it still holds today—Canada became increasingly independent in the decades that followed. By the end of World War I, it joined with other dominions of the British Empire like South Africa to seek formal recognition of its independence. In 1931, the British Parliament granted that recognition with the passage of the Statute of Westminster. More than 50 years later, Canada formally patriated its constitution in 1982. That same year, the Canadian government passed a bill renaming Dominion Day as Canada Day.

How Canada Day is celebrated now

July 1 has come to be commemorated across the nation with formal ceremonies, fireworks, and flyover demonstrations by the Snowbirds, the country’s military aerobatics team. It’s also celebrated with rousing renditions of “O Canada,” which was proclaimed the country’s national anthem on July 1, 1980.

But the holiday is not observed by everyone. Among many of the country’s Indigenous communities, the day is yet another reminder of Canada’s complicated colonial history—and the freedoms that they have long been denied.

This year, many Canadians are planning to join in solidarity with Indigenous communities. Although the nation’s official virtual concert and fireworks display will still take place, communities across Canada have pulled the plug on their celebrations. In Ottawa, protesters plan to march to Parliament Hill, which sits on land that was never ceded by the Algonquin.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, too, has suggested that Canadians use the day to reflect on the country’s history of oppressing Indigenous people. “We have so many things we need to work on together,” he said. “I think this Canada Day, it will be a time of reflection on what we’ve achieved as a country but on what more we have to do.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated. It was originally published on July 1, 2020.

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