The party’s just getting started in Canada. 2017 is the 150th anniversary of confederation and New Year’s Eve is the start of year-long festivities to mark the occasion. In Ottawa, that means fireworks and entertainment on Parliament Hill. Other events and programs will happen throughout the year. It’s an unusual phenomenon for a country that does not easily celebrate itself. Many Canadians only fly a flag on Canada Day.
Why was Canada formed in the first place? It was all about economics, governance, and protecting identity. Ontario and Quebec were jointly governed by weak coalition legislatures that seldom lasted long and did not have a permanent capital. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia had economic challenges. All four colonies were wary of a post-Civil War invasion of Canada by the United States or the possibility of having no economic independence from their Yankee neighbor. Leaders like Sir John A. Macdonald, who ended up as the first Prime Minister, wanted to tie the country together economically and socially through projects like the Canadian Pacific Railway and protectionist trade to discourage too much economic assimilation with the US. The result was that the four colonies became the founding provinces of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867. Manitoba joined in 1870, British Columbia in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873, Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905, and finally Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949.
50 years ago, Canadians celebrated their centennial year. Communities large and small had a centennial project of some kind. Montreal’s was Expo ’67, the world’s fair. A group of canoeists crossed the country as a way of capturing the old Voyageur spirit. A train crossed Canada as a traveling museum, making stops along the way. The whistle was calibrated to sound like the opening notes of “O Canada.” A lot of small parks, hockey rinks, baseball diamonds, and schools got built. My grandparents lived in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba at the time and the Boy Scout committee decided to publish a recipe book as a centennial project. My grandmother was on the cookbook committee and for her community service, was given a centennial letter opener with the special issue penny, nickel, and dime encased inside the transparent handle. Other centennial souvenirs included teacups and ashtrays. Gift and cookware wholesalers have been advertising 150th anniversary merchandise to retailers lately, too.
50 years later, the word “centennial” remains on a lot of facilities across Canada that were built in 1967. The distinct centennial logo is still visible on many of them. Similar projects are planned for 2017, only with the equally distinct Canada 150 logo. One of the 1967 facilities has an uncertain future. Gowanstown is a hamlet near where I grew up in southwestern Ontario. The North Perth town council decided a few months ago that the Centennial Park there is “surplus to the needs of the municipality” and put the park up for sale. Selling surplus land makes sense for a town short on cash, but is it right to sell a park where a cairn of stone stands covered in plaques honoring the 100th anniversary of the country and the pioneers who settled the area? It may make good financial sense, but it’s rotten as far as civic pride and respect for history go.
Hopefully, Canada weathers its 150th year with the relative peace, order, and good government that has typified its first 149 years. Canada has had its moments of both honor and shame throughout its history. This year is about celebrating what is good, and in typical Canadian fashion, apologizing for our mistakes.