How old is Canada anyway?

Historian Daniel Sims provides a reality check on Canada 150.

Guillaume de L’Isle’s 1708 revision of his 1703 map of Canada, which predates confederation by over 150 years. Map photo via University of Alberta Libraries and the William C. Wonders Map Collection.

In 2008, while I was conducting research at the BC Archives in Victoria, the city was awash with banners and signage celebrating British Columbia’s sesquicentennial. On the surface, it appeared the population supported this commemoration. In talking with an employee at the Royal BC Museum, however, I found out many people on the island were upset that 1999 had not seen a similar celebration. You see, the Colony of Vancouver Island had been established in 1849—nine years before the Colony of British Columbia. The province, however, had chosen to ignore this date in favour of 1858, and in doing so, deemed one date more important than another. The same is true with Canada 150.

Though the Canadian state is 150 years old, its nations are even older. Even if you want to ignore Indigenous claims that they have always been here, all evidence points to a history that, at a minimum, contains more than 10,000 years. European settlement is also much older than 150 years. The Norse unsuccessfully attempted to colonize Atlantic Canada in the 11th century. As a result, Snorri Thorfinnsson was the first European born in what became Canada. The colony he was born in was quickly abandoned, but numerous European peoples would follow in Columbus’ footsteps after his historic voyage of 1492.

The English first landed in what became Canada on June 24, 1497; the French followed in 1534. Colonies followed, most notably New France, which was also known as Canada. Following the Conquest in 1760, the United Kingdom renamed the colony the Province of Québec, only to divide it into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791 as a result of the influx of Loyalists after the American Revolution. When rebellions broke out in both colonies in the 1830s, the United Kingdom united them once again in the Province of Canada. It was this colony that pursued confederation in 1864 when it showed up uninvited in Charlottetown and derailed talk of a Maritime union. On July 1, 1867, the Dominion of Canada was formed.

We are not celebrating Indigenous people, New France or any of the other colonies that existed prior to 1867 … we are doing these groups a disservice.

The new dominion was not independent, though. It was instead a new kingdom within the British Empire. Indeed, during the 1891 federal election our first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, proudly proclaimed, “A British subject I was born — a British subject I will die.” He could hardly be blamed, however, as Canadian citizenship did not exist until 1947 — 16 years after Canada gained control of its own foreign affairs. Even then, it was not until 1949 that the Supreme Court became the highest court in the land. However, our constitution remained a piece of British legislation until Pierre Elliott Trudeau patriated it in 1982. It was only at this time that Canada had complete control over its own affairs.

So what are we celebrating on Canada Day—or, as it was officially known prior to 1982, Dominion Day? We are not celebrating Indigenous people, New France or any of the other colonies that existed prior to 1867. In this sense, we are doing these groups a disservice. We are, however, celebrating a piece of British legislation that brought these three groups together, whether they wanted to be or not. To subvert a term used by former prime minister Stephen Harper, these groups are “old-stock Canadians,” and they were a wonderfully diverse group of individuals with ancestors from all around the world. To them, the British North America Act was a transition. It was also a start — the first steps toward Canadian independence and the creation of a distinct Canadian nation-state. We are still on this path.

Daniel Sims is an assistant professor of History and Indigenous Studies at Augustana Campus. This piece originally appeared in the Camrose Super Booster on Feb. 7, 2017 as a promotional piece for his Canada 150 talk on the continued role of colonialism in Canada

For almost as long as there’s been a Canada, there’s been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we’re proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.

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