Alexandre tersigni is an independent cultural critic and researcher in history. His essays have been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Literary Hub and elsewhere. He directs the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s To build database.
I was rummaging through a button box at a thrift store recently when I came across a tiny royal bronze coat of arms. Upon closer inspection, I spotted an intricately crafted inscription between his medieval lions and his Irish harp: Regina 1837-1887. With a jerk I realized I was holding a 134 year old brooch commemorating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, knowing that generations of Canadians had saved this slightly twisted piece of metal so that I could find it out.
Anything that has survived countless household purges, pocket holes, and setbacks of fate has value, regardless of relevance or monetary value. I might not add the miniature shield topped with a crown to my most precious possessions, but taking a moment to hold this piece of history in my palm – to feel its weight and drink in its vivid enamel colors – I learned something firsthand about how cultures evolve.
I have long felt the same about the day named after the famous queen. The origin story of Victoria Day may be a bit outdated, but the celebration offers a unique glimpse into Canadian history due to its long-standing central role in our society. Every year on the penultimate Monday in May, we feel something – whether actively or subconsciously – about who we are and what it means to be Canadian. Part of this, we have now understood, means questioning our country’s imperialist heritage and debating how best to animate previously eclipsed Canadian narratives. Queen Victoria’s annual birthday party is a model of how we can boost national engagement.
Very early on, I asked my parents, “Why Victoria? Their response was as crucial to my understanding of Canada as anything I learned about totem poles, wigwams, sugar maples and lilies. She was a queen who changed the world, they said; it chose our capital, agreed to our desire to form a responsibly governed dominion, and ushered in sweeping social and economic changes, both gradual and restrictive.
These days, Victoria Day more often conjures up images of cans of brown glass beer bottles, Muskoka chairs, and swimming in newly thawed water. And this transformation – from Royal Day to “May 2-4” – tells how Canadian identity has changed over nearly two centuries.
In 1855, The Globe newspaper described the festivities in honor of Queen Victoria’s birthday in present-day Burlington, Ontario, including three rounds of 21 cannon shots, horses draped in evergreen branches and many hip-hip cheers for Her Majesty. More than 80 years later, in 1937, The Globe and Mail lamented the decline of May 24 to “just a holiday” when military parades, concerts and bonfires have all been abandoned. In 1977, the newspaper painted an image of a long May weekend that is familiar to us in the 2020s: “Victoria Day now means several hours on congested highways, followed by a broom and bucket session in the city. moldy summer retreats. “
Today, Canada is further removed than ever from its loyalist beginnings. Queen Victoria has practically become a fictional character. But we still observe his birthday with enthusiasm. While we don’t explicitly pay homage to the late Empress, it’s hard to forget her name as you paddle in freshly dusted canoes and thank the nearby Group of Seven pines for not having to work.
A few years ago a number of public figures, including Margaret Atwood and Elizabeth May, suggested that we rename Victoria Day as Victoria and First Peoples Day. The idea was to raise awareness of the historic abuse inflicted on Indigenous peoples in Canada in general and the contemporary inequalities that have resulted from it.
Obviously, we need general opportunities to recognize and critically deconstruct indigenous issues. I think Ms. Atwood and Ms. May were on to something: They identified the ability of Victoria Day to grab the attention of Canadians. But May Two-Four achieves it because it’s indisputable. Everyone knows what to do and when to do it, and knows everyone is following suit. Rather than adding our current calculations with colonialism to one of Canada’s oldest rituals, we should do for Indigenous peoples what Victoria Day does for Commonwealth culture: celebrate them specifically and unanimously. .
I recently visited the site of a 16th century Wendat village at the intersection of several subdivisions in Whitchurch-Stouffville, Ontario. Once home to 50 longhouses and twice as many people as Banff, Alta., It is the largest settlement of its kind in the Great Lakes Basin. Today, however, the only indication that there was – that real people once thought and felt where I stood – is a lonely plaque next to a suburban storm management pond. Sticky Neo-Georgian houses stood as I tried very hard to visualize the small stream, the limestone pebbles and the sky above me as they were 500 years ago.
After spending many afternoons letting my imagination run wild in the beautifully preserved Fort York park, I have no doubt that Canada knows how to commemorate its heritage. To really shine in the spotlight, you have to have an unequivocal emphasis. Perhaps that means more and more specific annual leave. After all, there are over 1.6 million Indigenous people in Canada today, and millions of people have lived here throughout history. Queen Victoria was just one person – but as a symbol she lived among the masses.
The more focused and visible the tradition, the more it shapes our lives. The Victorians understood this. If we follow their lead, maybe we’ll decide what kind of artifacts Canadians will find in thrift stores of the future.
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