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News Release

June 27, 2007

Ottawa's Canada Day Celebration Shaped by Politics, Says Prof

As people gear up to wave the Canadian flag, watch fireworks and take in the musical celebration on Parliament Hill, many will be unaware of the huge role politics has played in the annual Canada Day show.

Prof. Matthew Hayday has been studying the July 1 events held in Ottawa over the last half century and found that Canada’s changing political landscape has sharply influenced the way the day is celebrated.

“There has always been a lot of political tension underlying the Canada Day shows,” said the history professor. “In an effort to create a celebration that would both reflect their vision of Canadian identity and appeal to the general public, federal organizers have moved from a militaristic and formal celebration to a wild street party showcasing up-and-coming Canadian musicians.”

Former prime minister John Diefenbaker initiated the first big celebration in Ottawa in 1958, said Hayday. He was upset that Canada was losing its British connection, so he tried to rekindle it with a celebration of Dominion Day, as it was called until 1982.

The national festivities then shifted focus in the 1960s to include multicultural groups, French-Canadians and Aboriginal Peoples.

“But it wasn’t the type of aboriginal performances that we have today,” said Hayday. “It was teenagers from residential schools playing the bagpipes in full Scottish regalia.”

In the 1970s, the threat of Quebec separatism dominated the event, he said. The federal government significantly increased funding for the celebration in an effort to boost patriotism and portray a united Canada.

“The event was used as a political tool to fight back against separatism. There was a real effort to ensure that there was a balance between French and English performers without making it obvious to those watching the show that this was a politically driven event.”

After several years of these strategic performances, Ottawa realized that, although these star-studded events were popular in English-speaking Canada, they weren’t winning over Quebec separatists, said Hayday. Francophone stars who agreed to perform on July 1 were often called sellouts in the Quebec press, he said.

Since the late 1980s, he said the government has paid less attention to using the event for overtly political purposes and instead focused on encompassing the diversity of Canada and putting on an entertaining show.

Today’s Canada Day shows have become a major stepping stone for up-and-coming Canadian musicians, Hayday said.

“The event always includes the who’s who of rising Canadian talent. Alanis Morissette, Natalie MacMaster, Deborah Cox and Roch Voisine all played at the event before making it big.”

Although the political emphasis and funding have both declined over the years, Hayday said the recent showcasing of Canadian artists has helped make the massive Ottawa celebrations more popular than ever.

Prof. Matthew Hayday
Department of History
519-824-4120, Ext. 56052

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982.

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