What is Canada Day and how is it celebrated? The answer is more complicated than some might think

Many of us Canadians celebrate this annual July 1 holiday much the same way Americans approach Independence Day.

We fly that gorgeous red maple leaf proudly and wear Canada-themed outfits. Some people paint their faces. Festivals and fireworks are all part of the proceedings, whether you’re in Vancouver, Toronto or Charlottetown, with barbecues and pancake breakfasts among the culinary traditions of the day.

What about jet planes, you ask? Our famed Canadian Forces Snowbirds aerobatics flight demonstration squadron will be making an appearance in our nation’s capital on the big day.

But while the two holidays bear many similarities, professor Matthew Hayday, chair of the Department of History at Ontario’s Guelph University, tells CNN that Canadians don’t make “nearly as big a deal out of Canada Day as Americans do about Independence Day.”

“There is a huge celebration in the national capital in Ottawa, which brings tens of thousands of people to Parliament Hill – those celebrations date back to the late 1950s – but in most other communities, it is pretty low key, with some communities organizing picnics and barbecues and firework displays, but nothing along the lines of the various parades that you see in the US,” he says.

Canada Day’s origin story

To fully understand and compare the two, you need to go back. Way back.

US Congress established Independence Day as a holiday in 1870 to mark the passage of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. (In response, the British scolded the “misguided Americans” and “their extravagant and inadmissible Claim of Independency”.)

Meanwhile, the July 1 holiday to commemorate Canada’s Confederation became official in 1879, and was originally called Dominion Day. It marks the day the British North America Act came into effect in 1867, effectively creating the Dominion of Canada out of three British colonies: the United Province of Canada (now the provinces of Ontario and Quebec), plus New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

“Confederation was an administrative change, not a revolution,” says Forrest Pass, curator of Canada’s Library and Archives, via email.

“The editor of the Toronto Globe – precursor to the present-day Globe and Mail – put it best in an editorial on (appropriately) July 4, 1875, when he noted that the British North America Act has ‘none of the traditional associations of the Declaration of Independence, and is, to most people, only a piece of very dry, practical legislation.’”

Even the choice of the date for Confederation was purely administrative, he says, noting the British parliament tended to sit in the early spring and the legislation it passed usually came into effect on July 1 for accounting reasons.

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