Tracing the history of Canada’s flag and anthem

By Kate Butler

Canada Day is entrenched in what it means to be Canadian – a day for everything to be red and white and for maple leaves to adorn every surface – but can you imagine what it would have been like to have been around for the very first “Canada Day”?

On July 1 1867 four provinces (Ontario Nova Scotia New Brunswick and Quebec) came together to form the Dominion of Canada. According to contemporary accounts there were bonfires fireworks military displays and other entertainment to mark this huge occasion. The celebrations would have extended to every corner of the Dominion including Haliburton County which at that point was still a part of Peterborough County. Interestingly though the Governor-General began to push almost immediately for a statutory holiday commemorations of Confederation in the coming years remained low-key. Dominion Day as it came to be known was marked fairly quietly and just at the local level until 1917 – the 50th anniversary of Confederation.

Many people reading this will surely have memories of when Canada Day was known as Dominion Day as the change only happened in 1982. Interestingly though the conversation about the change actually began as early as 1946 when a Quebec member of the House of Commons proposed the name “Canada Day.” His suggestion went as far as the Senate but its recommendation of instead using the rather cumbersome name “The National Holiday of Canada” put an end to the debate for a time.

The 1980s were a time for the adoption of many instantly recognizable Canadian symbols including our national anthem. “O Canada” was originally composed in 1880 in French for that year’s Saint Jean Baptiste Day celebrations with English lyrics following later. “O Canada” was long the informal anthem for the country often performed in tandem with “God Save the King” (or later Queen) but it wasn’t until the country’s National Anthem Act received Royal Assent just 39 years ago that it became official.

Canada’s iconic maple leaf flag meanwhile was subject to a debate that seemed to consume much of the early 1960s in the country. For decades Britain’s Union Jack had been prominent in Canada eventually adapted to create the Red Ensign which showed the Union Jack in its upper left hand corner. The decision to create a distinctly Canadian flag led to the creation of an all-party committee from the House of Commons. The committee considered 2000 proposed designs from the public as well an additional 3900 which were on file going back as far as the mid-1940s. Ultimately Stanley and Matheson’s design which took its inspiration from that of Kingston’s Royal Military College emerged as the favourite but only after six months of debate and 308 speeches on the topic. Today their design is recognized as a Canadian emblem all over the world.

So many of these symbols underline the idea of Canada as a “young” country but it’s vital to remember that this land also has a history which extends back millennia. Interested in learning more about our community and country’s history this summer? Join us at the Haliburton Highlands Museum for a fun and fascinating roster of summer programs – from kids’ camps to theatrical presentations and historic walking tours to international celebrations we have something for everyone! We look forward to welcoming you soon!