Tag Archives: Canada Day

Why Celebrate July Fourth, or First?

Washington lit up by fireworks on July 4, 2012. Photo by Architect of the Capitol, US government, public domain.

July 1, 2017

Every American knows, or should know, that the 4th of July marks the birthday of the United States. But the reality is different, as it is in many or most countries, and the actual beginning of the country is more complex and confused.

The members of the Congress who met in Philadelphia decided on July 2, 1776 that the Colonies that were along the Atlantic coast should become independent, except for those from one of them. The delegates spent the next 2 days discussing the details of draft Declaration, mainly written by Thomas Jefferson. Most liked it, and this draft was approved by them on July 4. It then took some weeks to get a good parchment copy made for signing and even then, the delegates having gone home, some were not able to get to a place where they could sign it.

These delegates did not have the power to commit their home governments. They still had to go back and get their assent. That process began in August and was not finished until December 2. The British refused to recognize the declaration as having any legal force, and it took until 1781 before the British military gave up its efforts to subdue the new country, and it was truly independent.

So, why July 4? I’d guess, if you wanted a national holiday, one celebrating a document with symbolic importance, and inspirational to boot, July 4 would more than do.

Actually, Independence Day was not really an official holiday for the federal government until 1870. Various States had made it a holiday well before then, with Massachusetts being the first in 1781. It was first celebrated with fireworks and parades in Philadelphia in 1777, even though the British invasion forces were landing in Long Island and would, a couple of months later, occupy Philadelphia itself.

There was even a partisan contest for the ‘real’ date of Independence. The ringing words of the Declaration made for nice sentiments, the early Federalist partisans said, but it was General Washington who made the country a reality. If anything, the reality should take precedence over sentiment, so the real holiday ought to be Washington’s Birthday, which came in February, not July. Their Democratic opponents, led by Jefferson, disagreed. With the fading away of the Federalist Party after the election of 1800, Independence Day regained its luster.

Celebrations mixed patriotism with romance. In 1842, William Nowlin, the 20-year-old son of one of Dearborn Michigan’s earliest settlers, set off with his sister and a neighboring young woman, somewhat later to become his wife, to see the Independence Day celebrations in nearby Detroit.

He wrote many years later: ‘So when the morning of the ‘Fourth’ came, we started for town. We put up at the ‘Eagle Tavern’ on Woodbridge Street [in Detroit] and spent the day very patriotically … We visited all the sights we could hear of, and honored almost every display with our presence. When the salute of the day was fired, of course, we were there; they fired one big gun for Michigan. As the cannon thundered forth its fire and smoke, it seemed fairly to sweep the street with its tremendous force; it was terrible and grand….We thought we would go over to [Windsor] Canada to see what was going on there. When we were across [the Detroit River] we observed that the people didn’t seem to be paying attention to the ‘Fourth’. Of course, I was seeing all I could of Canada, but Miss Traviss took the greater part of my attention.’

After the Civil War, July 4th holiday celebrations were used by the federal government as a device for reconciling the people of the South to the American national tradition once again. Gradually, Confederate veterans were included in Independence Day parades and other celebrations.

One would have thought that the Confederacy would have adopted some kind of holiday to celebrate its ‘independence’, but it did not. There never was a Confederate ‘Jefferson’ to write a stirring document that rationalized Secession. As well the existence of the Confederacy was so short as to make any such memorializing tradition abortive.

Some Southern women’s groups created a Confederate Memorial Day in the late 1860s to honor its fallen soldiers. Then, the idea was appropriated by the North for the whole country, with Waterloo, NY, eventually acknowledged as its ‘birthplace’.

Also, Gen. Washington’s Birthday became a holiday. It was awkward to have this day move around the week with the vagaries of the calendar, so his ‘birthday’ was fixed for the third Monday in February. Close enough. Then, somebody suggested adding Lincoln, and eventually Washington’s birthday became Presidents’ Day.

Similar holiday-creating took place in Canada.

July 1, Canada Day, has become the equivalent of America’s Independence Day in 1867, as it was the date that British legislation creating a Confederation of 4 (now 10) Provinces came into force. Canada was self-governing, with the British continuing to control foreign policy for some decades. Later events, including the patriation of the Constitution in 1981, were subsumed into this holiday. Victoria Day, (a kind of Presidents’ Day), honoring the birthday of the great 19th Century British Queen, is fixed on the Monday before the Monday in May when Americans celebrate Memorial Day.

Canada’s equivalent of Memorial Day is November 11, the day when World War I ended. Small artificial red ‘poppies’ distributed by veterans’ groups are seen pinned to politicians and citizens alike on that day. The US celebrates Veterans’ Day on November 11, but it receives less attention than does the Canadian holiday on that date, likely because American participation in World War I was shorter and less traumatic than was that of Canada.

Just to complicate things further, Canada’s Thanksgiving comes in mid-October, when the harvesting is generally done. Most Americans think that their Thanksgiving is for the same reason, but the end of November is pretty late for a harvest feast. Actually President Lincoln suggested having a late-November Thanksgiving for Union victories during the Civil War. The rationale for the celebration was pushed over onto the Pilgrims and turkeys a lot later, by FDR in the 1930s, even though the Pilgrims did their actual feasting in October.

Such patriotic holidays are symbols that help to bind a people together. Connecting dates to events doesn’t really matter all that much.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2017


Jim McNiven’s latest book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America

Who is a Yankee and where did the term come from? Though shrouded in myth and routinely used as a substitute for American, the achievements of the Yankees have influenced nearly every facet of our modern way of life.

Join author Jim McNiven as he explores the emergence and influence of Yankee culture while traversing an old transcontinental highway reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific — US 20, which he nicknames “The Yankee Road.”


Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






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Reflections of a Canadian abroad as Canada turns 150

July 1, 2017

I never thought I would end up in rural Virginia, 40 miles outside Washington, DC. Never. I never thought I would live anywhere but Canada, or anywhere other than Nova Scotia, for that matter. But there was this girl, and for the past 25 years I’ve lived on the East Coast of the United States.

The old joke is that you can never get a Canadian to talk about Canada when he’s living in Canada, nor can you get him to shut up about it once he lives outside Canada. I think about Canada a lot more these days, living in the United States where Donald Trump is president, where there is no such thing as credible gun control, where conservative legislators use religion as a tool to undermine hard-won LGBTQ rights, where people actually say things like, “I’d rather have freedom and liberty than healthcare” (whatever the hell that means – I guess that means they want the freedom to die early).

Living in a country that is in many ways so similar to, and yet so different from Canada has helped me focus my thoughts more on what it means to be a Canadian. I am well aware that people lived in the land we now call Canada far earlier than 150 years ago, and there is more than a little justification for the idea that we stole that land from them. But I also know that 150 years ago a new political entity was formed, and while we cannot forget the sins of the past, we also can’t forget what it means to be a citizen of that 150-year-old nation.

In pondering that question, my thoughts continually return to an article written by Robertson Davies, the late, great Canadian author and playwright, for the 100th anniversary of the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine. Robertson – ever the Jungian – described Americans and Canadians in this way: Americans are extroverts, Canadians are introverts. Americans tend to act before they think, while Canadians tend to think before acting.  By and large I’d say Davies’ observations ring true.

The idea that we think before we act explains a great deal of the Canadian character to me. It’s why Canada is so often seen as a humane force for good in the world. Faced with the question of immigration, for instance, Canadians tend to think, ‘how can we help?’ As a whole (and yes I do realize there are exceptions – controversial Conservative politician Kellie Leitch proves the point) we Canadians weigh our actions before we make a decision. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Americans, it’s that they just do stuff before they think about what it means in the long run. Sometimes it works – sometimes it’s brilliant. Far too often, however, it’s a disaster not only for America, but for much of the rest of the world. (Think Iraq and Afghanistan – and that’s only recently.)

On the other hand,  Canadians do overthink. Our governments are famous for this, for taking so long to “think” about a problem that the eventual solution is often ridiculous and ineffectual.

Yet as frustrating is that can be, by and large we tend to be far more tilted to the good then to the bad.

Oh, I know there’s so much more to do. The historical treatment of First Nations people is so bad it really lacks an appropriate way to describe it. My African-Canadian friends would be the first to tell you that life is not all bouquets and roses. We must fix our messed-up electoral system.  And let’s not forget that it was a Canadian who opened fire on a mosque in Québec, something that has not happened in the United States to this point in time. (Every other damn place you can think of, yeah, for sure. Americans will slaughter each other in every conceivable manner and place you can think of.)

There are many things about Canada which I’m very proud: Canada has had gay marriage for more than a decade. Canada has gun control that, by and large, works pretty well. Canada has universal healthcare (and while it may have its problems, let me tell you, speaking from personal experience, it’s way better than what they have in the United States). The way the government selects justices for the Supreme Court. The current makeup of the federal cabinet, which also has its problems, but also sends a strong signal to the rest of the world (one that was recently cited by Pres. Macron in France when he created his 50% women, 50% men cabinet). Our stance on climate change. Canada went through a constitutional crisis that would’ve driven most countries apart. Instead we ultimately made use of that most Canadian trait, compromise, and most Québecois decided that instead of separating, hanging around in Canada was a pretty good idea after all.

These days I ‘wear’ being Canadian like a comfortable old sweatshirt and a pair of faded pair jeans. It just feels natural.  It is just the way I am. I am a Canadian.

Happy Birthday, Canada! Here’s to another 150.

Copyright Tom Regan 2017

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com


Tom Regan Tom Regan is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92, and is a member of the advisory board of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 



Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details and payment options, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

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