Three Things I Loved About My First Canada Day

As someone who grew up in the States, I’m used to celebrating July 4th, but I’m not used to really enjoying it. The fireworks are often cool, but the sheer volume of jingoism and military parades rub me the wrong way. They always made me feel out of place, like anything less than my-country-or-else patriotism wasn’t welcome. Not to mention the holiday itself is set on the absolute wrong day; the Declaration of Independence has absolutely no legal standing, and nothing to do whatsoever with the way the US is governed or the rights of its citizens (bringing this up at the Fourth, of course, is an easy way to get glared at).

So I was unsure what to expect for Canada Day. I’m also by myself, so no family or friends to go hang with. Thankfully, the City of Victoria threw a celebration downtown, right on the harbor, which turned out to be just about perfect.

Here’s three things I liked about this year’s celebration:

The Community

The first thing was having a community celebration at all. San Diego’s a city three times the size of Victoria, but if you look for their events for the Fourth, they’ve got the fireworks show at night, and a pub crawl, and…that’s it. No concerts, no closing off streets and setting up street vendors, nothing. The Fourth is meant to be celebrated at home, with family, and that’s it.

Which is fine if you’ve got a large family, or network of friends, but for a new immigrant like me, I was incredibly grateful to have the city’s Canada Day celebration to go to. It was completely free, with a central concert stage, bleachers on the hill facing, flanked by an open-air market and a bevy of food trucks. Oh, and a bouncy-castle style playground for the kids. And yes, there were flags, and people were wearing maple leaf shirts (and umbrella hats), but it was all low-key. No military fly-overs, just folks from all over the city out having a good time. I fit right in, and that felt great.

The Inclusivity

Speaking of fitting in, one of the reasons I wanted to go down to the celebration on Friday was to see all the shows they had lined up. They had Native dancers as part of the opening ceremonies, and Ukrainian dancers, and Chinese lion dancers, and…Just a whole host of people and communities that I’d never seen perform before.

In fact, it struck me that I’d never seen Native performers before, in person. Not in forty-three years of living in the United States. There’s never been a Fourth celebration that I’ve heard of or attended where Native Americans participated; they’ve probably never even been asked.

Now I know Canada’s record here is very far from blameless. The residential schools, the Oka Crisis, the conflicts over land and self-government that continue to this day. But one of the things Thomas King remarked on in his The Inconvenient Indian is how often colonial governments want to make native peoples invisible, to make exploiting them all the easier. And in this case, at least, the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers were making themselves more visible, right there on stage.

I confess it moved me, and as I watched them dance, followed by the Ukrainian dancers, the listened to the Ukrainian choir, then watched Chinese lion dancers jump and gambol in front of the stage, I realized they’d turned Canada Day into a celebration of diversity, instead of a suppression of it.

The Scope

That inclusivity was a reflection of another thing I noticed and liked: the breadth of the celebration.

Again, unlike the US, this wasn’t a primarily military holiday. No call-and-response about army figures who “died for our freedom.” Not that the military was absent, mind you — they had a booth in the market where they were recruiting, excuse me, “hiring” (as they put it) — just that they weren’t the focus.

So there was plenty of room for a Ukrainian choir, talking up the deep connections between Ukraine (many Ukrainians settled the Canadian plains) and Canada. And room for a local white blues musician. And for a Guinean-led band. And for a Vancouver-based electronic group. And for every announcement to be interpreted live in ASL by a woman standing prominently on the stage.

And for me.