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July 1st — Happy Canada Day!

Well, actually it's still "Dominion Day" at our retro MLU site...

by Glenn Warner

Yes, America has Independence Day! France has Bastille Day! And for 115 years — through two World Wars, the Korean conflict, and our early United Nations peacekeeping missions — Canada had Dominion Day.

But in July 1982, on a Friday afternoon with only 13 Members of Parliament sitting in session, on the last day before the summer recess, the government moved to change the name of our National Day and its celebration to "Canada Day". Unimaginative some say — as banal as "America Day", "France Day" or "Britain Day".

Dominion of Canada cigarette card

Between 1864 and 1866, it took a league of very passionate and extraordinary gentlemen from five British North American colonies to butt heads and hopefully hammer out a deal that would form a new Canadian nation. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island all sent delegates; the province of Canada asked to join them, and Newfoundland sent observers. At the end of the conferences, PEI withdrew and Newfoundland didn't participate.

But on July 1st, 1867, three British colonies (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the province of Canada) joined together to form four provinces — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec. In effect, the statesmen had formed a new nation named Canada, with the title of Dominion. ( And in doing so made up what would become the most abstruse and Canadian of words — Confederation.)

You may have seen the famous painting of our "Fathers of Confederation" in action at one of the 1864 pre-Confederation deal-making conferences. Robert Harris was commissioned to paint the collection of delegates portraits on one canvas in 1883 to hang in the Centre Block of our Parliament Buildings. What you might not have known is that there are several things not quite right about it.

For one, you haven't seen Robert Harris's coloured painting because, well... it doesn't exist. It was destroyed in the Canadian Parliament fire of February 1916. (View PopUp of fire.) The only thing that remains of the original painting is the B&W photograph (below) taken of it by James Ashfield in 1885. This B&W image is an 1885 photograph of an 1884 painting depicting an event in 1864.

Fathers of Confederation by Rex Woods

Even if you could see Harris's original painting, there's still something not quite right about it because, secondly, it doesn't really even depict an event from 1864. It depicts a combination of two separate events. Harris has taken some considerable licence in convening this particular meeting, since not all of the delegates represented in the painting were in the same room at the same time. Harris has painted an amalgamation of the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864 by portraying 33 "Fathers of Confederation", and the secretary Hewitt Bernard in the upper left, as if they were attending one sitting.

So then, what about the coloured painting below?

Fathers of Confederation by Rex Woods

Well, in 1964, Rex Woods was commissioned to paint a replica of the Robert Harris painting for the 100th anniversary of the Confederation Conferences. And Woods took his own artistic licence by adding four more figures to the painting, including three delegates (note the three extra guys on the far right) who were at the London Conference in England in 1866, and including and homage to the original painter Robert Harris himself, hanging as a portrait on the far right wall.

Miss Dominion of Canada on 1910 postcard

Considering the passion that drove the Fathers of Confederation to form the nucleus of this great nation, something is not quite right about the term "Canada Day" either. There is something quite bureaucratic and unromantic about the title, which perhaps makes it, uh, very Canadian.

It may be somewhat false and unrepresentative of the passion and fervour of Canadians, but it says everything about an Ottawa politico sitting in parliament on a Friday afternoon waiting for summer recess to start.

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Read about another great Canadian long weekend — Victoria Day. She's been dead for over over a century, but we still celebrate Queen Victoria's birthday on May 24th weekend — the opening of Canadian summer!  Read More