Photograph by Liang Sen, Xinhua/Alamy Live News
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Local residents wave the national flag of Canada during the 73rd Salmon Festival Parade in Richmond, Canada, on July 1, 2018. Thousands of people participated in the parade to celebrate Canada Day, a national holiday honoring the country's founding.

Photograph by Liang Sen, Xinhua/Alamy Live News
HistoryExplainer

Canada Day marks the country’s birth—but not its independence

On July 1, 1867, three British colonies merged to form Canada. The new country was self-governed—but technically remained subject to British rule for decades longer.

In Canada, independence didn’t come with a bang. It was a slow journey that began more than 150 years ago with the country’s formation, now celebrated every year on July 1 as the national holiday Canada Day.

The land that became Canada was long inhabited by Iroquois and other indigenous people. European colonization began in the late 15th century 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. Each country sought to expand its territory, resulting in the Seven Years’ War. In 1763, the war ended, and France turned its holdings over to the British.

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.)

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.

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.