Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Canada Day All Summer Long

Sharon Wildwind

I grew up knowing two invincible rules about summer: never wear navy blue shoes between Memorial Day and Labor Day and, even though they were illegal, always shoot off firecrackers on July 4th.

July 4th is such a tidy holiday. Watch a parade. Have a barbecue. Wave the flag. Listen to political speeches and John Phillip Sousa music. Ooh and ahh over the fireworks, and bang (okay, pun intended) back to the lazy, hazy days of summer.

It’s not that simple in Canada. Yes, we have Canada Day on July 1 where we watch parades, have barbecues, wave the flag, listen to political speeches, and ooh and ahh over fireworks. The music is likely to be a little more eclectic: bagpipes anywhere a police band marches in a parade, Trinidadian steel drums in Toronto, fiddle music in Quebec and the Maritimes, and traditional South Asian music in Vancouver.

As a country we also have a sense that between Victoria Day and Labor Day, multiple pageants have to unfold before we have truly celebrated who we are as a country.

Victoria Day is the official start of summer in Canada. For those of you not familiar with Canadian holidays, Victoria day is the last Monday before May 24 because Queen Victoria was born May 24, 1818 and we’re celebrating her birthday. To celebrate the “auld queen” (and the arrival of summer, finally, finally, finally) people
• have elaborate teas, which is why this is one of my favorite Canadian holidays
• close the ski resorts, and yes, this year there was skiing in Banff right up to closure day
• open cottages and tourist attractions for the summer
• plant gardens

If you’ve got any sense about gardening in Calgary, you know that rule about never planting until after Victoria Day is as invincible as the navy shoe rule. I offer these two photographs of my balcony several years ago as all the explanation needed.

The first one was taken the day before Victoria Day; the second one was taken the day after Victoria Day

Most years the weather change isn’t that dramatic, but those late May frosts can sure sneak up on plants at night. Yes, on Victoria Day we celebrate the contributions that British-oriented culture brought to Canada, but we’re also celebrating hope. This year might just be the year that the weather cooperates, the September frosts arrive late in the month, and the garden flourishes. It’s that hope that fills gardening departments to the brim with both plants and hopeful gardeners.

Treaty Day is a movable holiday celebrated in different parts of Canada on different days. In western Canada it’s usually in June. Treaty Day commemorates several treaties signed between 1871 and 1876 by Aboriginal peoples and the newly formed Government of Canada.

By invitation, I’ve attended two Treaty Days. Two Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in full red serge uniforms, sat at a card table set up on the reserve. Everyone from the oldest resident to babes in arms formed a long line and came to the table one-by-one to have their names checked and be handed their traditional $5 payment. The kids immediately took off for the convenience store to buy candy, chips, and pop. Later that evening there was a huge meal and a dance.

As an outsider I was uncomfortable with the whole idea. What was going on here? Why were these people allowing this hollow reminder of something that happened two centuries ago to continue? But everyone else seemed to have a good time. It was a day full of jokes, laughter, good food, and music. I still haven’t “gotten” Treaty Day in the same way that a First Nations person understands it, but maybe it has something to do with home comings, promise-keeping, and recognizing that a contract is a contract.

Quebecers, who enjoy being different, don’t wait until July 1 to celebrate. They celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day on June 24. Depending on the political climate, it’s a day to declare either joyously or in rage that French culture is here to stay in North America. Fortunately, the past few years have been more joyous than raging and the bonfires have burned brightly along the St. Lawrence River, accompanied by music, dancing, parades, fireworks, and bells ringing forth from the churches.

As a woman who comes from bilingual Louisiana and has a foot in both cultures and languages, I understand the joy and the rage. Both say that French culture is here to stay in North America and we intend to honor what made us who we are. Come to think of it, maybe there’s something of that in the Treaty Day celebrations. And in the ethnic—for lack of a better word—celebrations that have proliferated in the past few years.

There was a Greek festival in Calgary last weekend and a Turkish Festival happens this coming weekend. Before summer ends, people will have celebrated being Canadian-African, -Caribbean, -Chinese, -Hispanic, -French, -Latino, -Nigerian, -Mexican, -Scottish, -Tibetan, and -Ukrainian. For those who still need more celebrations, there are summer events revolving around Calgary history, classical guitar, cooking, dragon boats, folk music, garage bands, international blues, reggae, Shakespeare in the park, street theater, and a finale GlobalFest celebration of multi-culturalism and diversity, just in case anyone was missed along the way. And I bet you thought that Calgary just had the Stampede.

By the time we get around to the actual Canada Day on July 1, we’re already looking over our shoulders. Six weeks have passed since that last great snow storm before Victoria Day. If we’re really lucky, we’ll have twelve more weeks until the first frost, but we all know that it could come as early as the long weekend in August. All too soon; all way, way too soon the leaves will start to turn colors and it will be time to take down those gardens and batten the hatches for fall and winter.

But for now, let summer roll. Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music.


Diane said...

I don't know as much about Canadian history as I do American history, but it seems the First People got a better break from the Canadian government than they did here in the US. Maybe the Canadian ceremony is a reminder. It is nice that Canada takes notice of all of the various peoples who have made her a good country to live.

Anonymous said...

Diane, I don't pretend to be an authority on First Nations settlements. It's large and complicated and one of the major factors is the huge distances. There are some First Nations that live near populated areas, but many people live very, very far away from other communities. It's a real struggle to provide adequate housing, clean water, and employment in those isolated communities.