Sunday, January 08, 2012

Canada Day and the War of 1812

In a story in today's Toronto Star and CBC from Canadian Press, the federal government has hired a consultant to inject a War of 1812 theme into the noonday and evening Canada Day shows on Parliament Hill. The article implies that this might represent a major shift in crafting politicized Canada Day celebrations, and that this is part of a larger heritage direction on the part of the federal government. The author is right about the latter, but I'd contest his implied interpretation that this is something dramatically new.

As someone who has dedicated far too many years of my life to researching the history of July 1st celebrations (my most recent article from the Canadian Historical Review can be found here, I could not be less surprised by this development, and I don't see this as anything new. Indeed, there is a long and illustrious history of both Conservative and Liberal governments of the past turning the national Canada Day (or pre-1983, Dominion Day) celebrations to political purposes. If we go back to 1958, Dominion Day ceremonies on Parliament Hill were established by Secretary of State Ellen Fairclough with an eye to promoting aspects of Canada's British and military heritage. In the late-1970s, government mandarin Bernard Ostry was seconded to put together a multi-hour coast-to-coast celebration, organized in part to combat separatism after the 1976 election of the Parti Quebecois. In the early-to-mid-1980s, Secretary of State officials began developing explicit annual themes, some of them linked to historical anniversaries (like the 1984 celebrations, which were tied to the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier's arrival in Canada). This year's decision by Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore to incorporate a War of 1812 theme is really nothing new, but simply the exploitation of an existing tradition to reinforce particular government messaging about Canadian identity.

And to answer the question posed by Dean Beeby, the Canadian Press author of the story, the degree of control over the noonday and evening shows has gone back and forth over the past several decades. Some years, the NCC has had a free hand with the evening show. In other years, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the Secretary of State Department (now Canadian Heritage) played a much more active role in determining the themes and content of the evening broadcast. This was often connected to whether or not the show was to be televised (which also meant that CBC and Radio-Canada were involved in the process).

What I'm still waiting to see is whether an MP introduces a bill to return to the old moniker of Dominion Day.

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