A Tale of Two National Days

Today is July 4th, the anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence. It is probably due to the now all-consuming American influence that we so often to try to understand our own history in terms of American analogues. We reach for Canada’s ‘Independence Day,’ for Canada’s ‘first prime minister,’ and other non-existent singular events because so many Canadians are thoroughly convinced that our history must follow or echo the American archetype, regardless if it really does or not.

Canada Day, formerly Dominion Day, was on July 1st. In the Canadian public imagination, we like to say that Canada ‘became a country’ on that day, in 1867. Now, Confederation took effect on that day, forming more or less the modern federal state.

But did Canada really become a country on July 1st, 1867? The country wasn’t independent; indeed Confederation was driven in part from the desire of many to remain in the British Empire. The British Parliament could still make binding law (though it rarely did), the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was Canada’s final court, and as Sir John A. Macdonald put it, “A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die.”

Confederation brought neither parliamentary government (1848), nor independence (1931), nor final constitutional sovereignty (1982). Nor was it even the first Canadian unification attempt. It was a significant event, but not the only significant event. The Canadian state and Canadian society were built up in multiple stages.

The American example is enticing perhaps because of its deceptive simplicity. For the Americans, the Founding is a whole and discrete historical event. In the American popular tradition, the Great Republic was formed within a well-defined time (17751789). The revolution was driven, achieved, and consolidated by largely the same group of actors (the rebel Founding Fathers). Over this time, those actors developed and broadcast an opposing political ideology to the old empire in response to real and perceived imperial abuses, achieved secession from the empire by war, cobbled together a confederal union, and then redesigned that union into its modern federal form. Overall, an impressive achievement.

History is rarely so compact and sharply defined. And in truth, the American historical tale itself is less straight forward then its popular recollection would lead you to believe. As with all great events, there were many more actors, ideas, and forces at play behind the scenes. But the American Founding mythos appears so complete, so clear-cut, its legends so broadly known by English-speakers everywhere, that we accept it as such. To modern English Canadians, America is normal, and if Canada differs from it, then it is Canada and not America that is the anomaly.

As usual when we restrict our horizons to just North America, our sense of being weird isn’t true. Abroad, national commemorations are rarely so all-encompassing as American Independence Day. France’s Bastille Day simply commemorates one notable event in the French Revolution. The French republic that rose during that revolution didn’t last; France has had two empires, two traditional monarchies, and four more republics since. The United Kingdom doesn’t even really have a national day per se, though each constituent nation observes feast days for their patron saints (Québec has one of those as well). The UK’s historical development owes more to an accretion of institutions then any one major revolutionary process, and its calendar of commemorative days mirrors that fact.

Countries that have decolonized or otherwise seceded usually have a generic Independence Day that is largely about nationalism and, well, independence.

Older countries tend to celebrate the rise of the most recent regime, with maybe some nods to times long gone. China celebrates the rise of one Communist regime on October 1st, Russia now marks the effective demise of another on June 12th. India’s Independence Day is strictly about independence, it also has a Republic Day that celebrates the current constitution. Ethiopia, an ancient African state, celebrates a self-explanatory Derg Downfall Day on May 28th.

Japan probably has the oldest event on the calendar, and one of the few to reference a legendary figure: National Foundation Day, on February 11th, the alleged date that the legendary first emperor Jimmu was crowned, in 660 BCE. That guy goes so far back that there aren’t any remaining contemporary accounts of him, hence the legendary qualifier.

The point is, in terms of singular overriding importance, American Independence Day is an outlier. It represents the beginning of a process that brought about in a relatively short time: independence, a certain political ideology, federation, and even a sort of national meaning. There are very few other commemorations that carry as much political or emotional weight. Canada represents the norm here, America is actually an oddity.

So Canada has its old run-of-the-mill Dominion Day, and America has its supercharged Independence Day.

Though I’ll concede to the Yanks… their pyrotechnics are always impressive.

Published by The Last Tory

Some random shmuck, no one important. Last of the old school Tory tradition, and chronicler of the kingdom's demise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: