The Origins of a Canadian Culture

The Origins of a Canadian Culture

Canada is turning 150 this year!!! We’ll be celebrating with a number of posts devoted to Canadian history and culture as well as sharing information on some of the planned programmes and activities that will be taking place across the country in honour of the country’s sesquicentennial.

Canada is a young nation. In secondary school-level Canadian history classes, students are taught that Canada began to assert itself as an independent nation at the dawn of the Second World War. In September 1939, the country’s leaders waited several days before formally declaring war on Germany, yet even then Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King requested King George VI’s approval. This was a significant change from World War One, when Canada was automatically drawn into the war via England’s declaration.

Some might argue that a truly ‘Canadian’ culture really didn’t assert itself until the 1950s and 1960s. During these two decades the country witnessed a surge in funding for the arts. This included the founding of organisations such as the National Ballet of Canada (Toronto, 1951) and the Stratford Festival (Stratford, 1952), as well as the building of major national venues for the arts such as the National Arts Centre (Ottawa, 1969) and the National Theatre School of Canada (Montreal, 1960). There was also a significant expansion of existing universities and growth in the number of universities, allowing more young people to complete post-secondary education. Of course, this was also a reaction to the baby boomers reaching university age.

Canadian artists, musicians, and writers were beginning to make their mark on the national and international ‘stage’ during this period. Singers Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot, the rock band The Guess Who, actor Christopher Plummer, author Margaret Atwood, poet Leonard Cohen, and many more contributed to a new idea of Canada for the younger generation. The National Arts Centre’s studio theatre opened in 1969 with George Ryga’s ‘The Ecstacy of Rita Joe’, which had debuted in Vancouver in 1967. Little money or energy had been expended on developing Canadian works prior to this period.

There are a few specific moments that highlight these efforts in defining Canada and what it meant to be Canadian in the 1960s that had lasting effects on the nation. The first has to be the decision to choose a flag design for the nation. Until the 1960s, Canada was represented by the flag was the Union Jack of the United Kingdom or the Canadian Red Ensign.


Canadian Red Ensign

In the run up to the federal election of 1963, Liberal leader and Leader of the Opposition Lester B. Pearson stated that he would have a new flag for the country within two years and found a great deal of popular support for his mission. Pearson won the election. The Canada flag that we all know was inaugurated on 15 February 1965, two years ahead of the Centennial celebrations.

Flag Day, the 15th of February, has been celebrated in Canada every year since 1996. This year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an official statement regarding the importance and symbolism of the flag. The Government provides useful guidelines on how to display the Canadian flag. There’s also a “Share Your Moment with the Flag” challenge for 2017, where Canadians are encouraged to share a photograph or video of themselves online holding the flag somewhere using #canadianflag.

The second major defining moment of the era would have to be Expo ’67. Held in Montreal in April 1967, Expo ’67 (aka the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, or World’s Fair) displayed the optimism and excitement of Canada’s baby boomer generation and saw record-levels of attendance, making it one of the most successful and memorable World’s Fairs of the 20th century and the inspiration behind this classic Heritage Minute:

Canada’s history, of course, stretches back long before Centennial or Confederation a hundred years earlier, back to the Loyalists of the later 1700s and the French settlers and fur traders of the 1600s, and then of course to the pre-history of Canada’s first nations peoples. As such, there’s a wealth of stories to tell in the lead up to the sesquicentennial! We’ll be looking forward to joining in the celebrations from abroad and on the blog.

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