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            Happy 150th Birthday To Ontario, Canada’s Most Populous Province


By Randall White

In Ontario, as elsewhere, those old enough to remember can testify that there is not as much excitement about Canada 150 this July 1st as there was about Canada 100 in 1967. 

That may partly be because a 150th is not as notable as a 100th anniversary. But it’s also because Canada has matured as a country over the past half-century.

More exactly, we are better able to appreciate the comparatively limited scope of what is being commemorated this year when set beside the bigger story of Canada writ large. 

It is not quite right, for example, to call July 1, 2017 “Canada’s 150th birthday.” Canada in various senses is both much older, and considerably younger, than this implies.

July 1, 2017 is just the 150th anniversary of the confederation of 1867, a political regime originally established by legislation of the parliament of the United Kingdom known as the British North America Act.

(And the old “BNA Act” is now Canada’s own Constitution Act, 1867 — a companion to the Constitution Act, 1982, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this July 1.)

But in principle, the beginnings of Canada writ large can be traced back for millennia. 

The impressive first volume of today’s Historical Atlas of Canada, first published in 1987, begins with “The Last Ice Sheets, 18 000–10 000 BC.” 

Inside this vast geography just a few weeks ago Gillian Steward from Calgary was telling readers of the Toronto Star “It’s time to recognize First Nations as founders of Canada.”

Indeed, ever since the late 19th century, federal government publications have similarly been reporting that the “name "Canada" likely comes from the Huron-Iroquois word "kanata," meaning "village" or "settlement’” — as explained to Jacques Cartier back in 1535. 

Such present-day legal scholars as John Borrows and Brian Slattery have written on “Canada's Indigenous Constitution” and “The Aboriginal Constitution” as well. 

It has also been said that the French word “Canadien” referred to First Nations until the late 17th century. Then migrants from France to the St. Lawrence valley began using the word for themselves.

This side of the deeper Canadian past is equally in the air in 2017, via the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal in 1642. 

Montreal went on to become the metropolis of the multiracial “French and Indian” fur trade that had reached the Rocky Mountains by the time the British empire inherited “Canada or New France” in the later 18th century. 

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Canadian fur trade out of Montreal reached the Pacific Ocean, under the multicultural Northwest Company — the first transcontinental business enterprise in North America.  

The mixed-race Métis peoples of Canada were another creation of the east-west fur trade — a history warmly explored in Sylvia Van Kirk’s book of 1980, “Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870."  

What many Métis peoples of Canada today might remember best about the 1860s is the 1869–70 Red River Rebellion against the 1867 confederation, which led to the creation of modern Manitoba (soon joined by British Columbia on the Pacific coast).  

In its earlier days the confederation of 1867 was also just the first self-governing dominion of the global British Empire.  So in this sense what the Constitution Act, 1982 calls the “free and democratic” Canada of 2017 is considerably younger than the old dominion.

There was no such legal status as a Canadian citizen, for example, until the first Canadian Citizenship Act took effect on January 1, 1947.    

Before 1947 (and after 1763) both Canadian residents born in Canada and naturalized immigrants were classified as British subjects rather than Canadian citizens. Canadian citizenship itself can be said to be celebrating its 70th birthday in 2017.

The 70 years since 1947 have seen increasingly diverse waves of migration to Canada from all over the global village. Anyone from anywhere can become a Canadian citizen today.

The arrival of the independent Canadian maple leaf flag in 1965 was another considerably younger milestone. 

So was the Constitution Act, 1982 itself. It finally patriated the British North America Act from the United Kingdom and enshrined the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  

All this having been said, however, July 1, 1867 remains a heritage marker worth commemorating.

Canadian confederation happened in the shell-shocked wake of the bloody American Civil War, 1861–65 and just before Japan’s modernizing Meiji Restoration in 1868. 

Canada 150 years later remains an unfinished experiment with room for improvement. That is part of what makes it interesting. 

Yet, through many changes already, the ultimately transcontinental political regime established in 1867 has grown into the modern free and democratic home of a diverse Canadian people. And its future looks better and better as the 21st century unfolds. 

So Happy Canada 150. You are lucky indeed if this is where fate finds you today.












About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : June 27, 2017

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