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  • Celebrating Canada, Volume 1: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities ed. by Matthew Hayday, Raymond B. Blake
  • Richard White
Celebrating Canada, Volume 1: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities. Matthew Hayday and Raymond B. Blake, eds. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. Pp. x + 450, $63.75 cloth, $28.46 paper

The symbolic trappings of nations and nation-making are always contested, but they are rarely as complicated as they are in Canada’s rather busy calendar of national days. Their packaging of the nation will always be an awkward affair–the gift-wrapping not quite concealing the unwieldy contents; the string and sticky tape not quite holding it all together. Celebrating Canada shows this well, though unfortunately its own packaging–a spectacularly dull cover–is not conducive to any [End Page 295] excited anticipation of what is inside. That is a pity because its sixteen chapters provide much food for thought; the editors develop interesting themes, and the book as a whole offers a pretty thorough accounting of Canada’s national days. A second volume due to appear in 2018–on commemorations, anniversaries, and national symbols–appears better wrapped.

The collection makes the obvious points effectively. The justifications, the rhetorical tropes, and national days themselves come and go, but many of the debates remain the same: should celebrations be centralized or local, government led or grassroots based? The rifts between anglophone and francophone nationalisms and the efforts to embrace multicultural Canada are well covered, though the relationship of Indigenous peoples to the nation is curiously neglected. It shows how anxieties about unity were a constant despite Canada having a surprisingly long history of embracing diversity. We see Canada’s need to distinguish its identity against not one, but two, “Others,” the United States and Great Britain; Vancouver’s turn-of-the-century Dominion Day shrewdly showcased games of lacrosse, cricket, and baseball. Above all, we see politicians juggling for political advantage by giving their own particular stamp to the national identity, especially in Chris Tait’s lively chapter on Victoria Day. Teresa Iacobelli’s thorough unpicking of the politics of Remembrance Day and Forrest Pass’s fascinating account of the way nationalism is experienced locally in British Columbia’s Dominion Day are other highlights. National days do not reflect identity; they shape it.

However, the contributors offer more subtle insights as well. In particular, the editors stress that constant bickering about national days has value. The very fact that there can be no agreed national identity on parade–that meanings remain flexible and ambiguous–allows disparate groups to take part. Thus, while Canada Day’s organizers might conceive the participation of Chinese, Japanese, or Indigenous Canadians as assimilation, these groups can see themselves as asserting a separate identity or contesting their exclusion–a case of “competitive coordination” (245), as Lianbi Zhu and Timothy Baycroft call it. National memory may well be constructed by the powerful, but whether and how subordinate groups buy into it can vary. We also see a shift from political to cultural identities and then, ultimately, to the nation that exists as little more than its symbols, as neo-liberalism and globalization hollow out real institutional distinctions.

Another underlying issue is the way quite prosaic considerations, rather than high-blown nationalism, can shape celebrations. Business interests have always asserted their concerns, even managing to have [End Page 296] Armistice Day commemorated on the eleventh hour and eleventh month but only occasionally on the eleventh day. The weather plays its part too. Indeed, the role of holidays in shaping the rhythm of the year–Victoria Day as a prelude to summer and Canada Day as a decent summer break–is arguably more important than any national meaning claimed for them; the November birthday of King Edward VIII would never have worked.

This brings me to a major frustration. Celebrating Canada fails to show how ordinary Canadians actually relate to their national days. The problem is partly methodological. The dominant sources are speeches of politicians and that particular class of local worthies who take it upon themselves to speak for the nation (such as the redoubtable Clementina Fessenden Trenholme, who invented Empire...


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