Above them, as soaring tributes to the nation’s successes—and salves to the shame of its treatment of its Indigenous people—echoed off the tired stones of constitutional monarchy from a huge, black stage, a CF-18 shouted down a tiny tribe of protesters and the flag of the Governor-General was raised atop the Peace Tower, replacing the Maple Leaf.
(What other country, a traveler wondered, is so humble as to lower its own banner on its own day?)
Enduring Gordon Lightfoot’s early morning rain and drizzly rhetoric from the Prince of Wales, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bono and the Prime Minister, among others, a wringing-wet but respectable battalion of conspicuously hard-core patriots encamped on the poorly-drained lawn.
In peaceful, perfect Ottawa on Canada Day, 2017, the partisans came to hear the band Walk Off the Earth but instead they saw Mop Off The Stage. A corn-maze of barricades cantilevered along Wellington Street, scanning, slowing and scattering the revelers. Tens of thousands more were expected for an evening of music and fireworks, starring Lightfoot, Alessia Cara, and other icons new and ancient, English and French and Other, should dry weather hold.
The formal part of the sesquicentennial was, as these events go, a somewhat expanded version of the conventional pageantry, with the heir to the throne, in a pink shirt and grey suit, praising Canada as “a clear and proud example of fairness and inclusion,” Bono thanking the crowd “for the country you’re continuing to build,” and Sainte-Marie urging the audience to remember that “it ain’t governments that make the people strong.”
At the same time, a loop of federally-funded propaganda videos blared from Big Brother-sized screens, and a delegation of Indigenous leaders circled the Centennial Flame to welcome Their various Excellencies to the splendour and the slop.
In 1865, banging the drum for Confederation, John A. Macdonald foresaw “a great nationality, commanding the respect of the world, able to hold our own against all opponents, and to defend those institutions we prize . . . obeying the same Sovereign, owning the same allegiance, and being, for the most part, of the same blood and lineage.”
That this ideal had been preserved and for one and a half centuries—holding its own against the Kaiser, the Nazis, the separatists, and the republican behemoth to the south—was the source of Saturday’s communal pride and public ecstasy, even if few in the crowd took time to remember how many men had drowned in mud so that their great-grandchildren might jump in puddles. But Sir John A.’s pap about blood and lineage no longer made sense in this sensationally multi-coloured land.
“When I think of where my family came from,” an Ottawa realtor named Deka Barre, born in Somalia, was saying, her daughter on her shoulders, “the way I experience Ottawa, the way I experience this country, it has given me safety. It has given me freedom. It has given me a home.”
“There are conversations that we have to have,” said the Canadian, “and things that we have to talk about as a country. But in my mind, as an individual, I’m OK.”
A man named Ritchie Hughes, age 59, had come to Parliament Hill by bicycle—all the way from Victoria, B.C. His cause on this calf-killing odyssey had not been mere sightseeing, a desire to be devoured by blackflies, or New Age “personal growth;” he was riding to raise money for a charity called Honour House and the injured and traumatized veterans of Canada’s newer wars.
Hughes said that both of his grandfathers had been severely wounded in the First World War, and that he himself had served in the Canadian Navy in the 1990s, back when, “if you told people you were in the military, they were like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Today, he observed, “Canada has started to honour our new veterans, and people are finally saying, ‘Hey—our military’s damn good.”
In front of the 12th-century-Gothic revival East Block, a tent had been set up to harbour lost children, of which, thank heaven, by mid-day there were none. One of the volunteers there was a woman named Brigitte Trau, whose father had come to Canada from Austria in 1956 and whose maternal ancestors had crossed from Poitou, France, exactly three centuries earlier. So here were both of the founding solitudes embedded in one bilingual, caring woman—1956 and 1656, stirred, but their essences not shaken, the latter-day Canadian ideal cordially achieved.
Trau said that she had spent six months in Afghanistan in 2009, working for a civilian contractor, and that she had seen a dozen brave Canadians die there for their country and the Crown. There was a young man, she remembered, “who was at the base every day and very friendly then one day he just blew himself up and took a lot of people with him.”
Around her, hailing Canada 150, were thousands from both banks of every one of Earth’s rivers, mingling in what may be the closest approach to universal brother- and sisterhood that mankind ever has achieved.
“The clichés are true,” she said of her country. “The clichés are right. What people say about Canada is true.”
That so much of the flag-waving and back-patting on Parliament Hill was Parliament-funded was, for the moment, beside the point.
“You have to have a vision,” said Trau, sampling Sir John A., “because if you don’t have a vision, you don’t know when it’s been achieved.”