Birthday hangover still has Ottawa buzzing

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All in all, it was a great celebration. We reflected on successes and the many mistakes Canada made in the first 150 years. Learning from both, we are all the better for it.


First published on Monday, July 10, 2017 in The Hill Times.


OTTAWA—Thank goodness the sesquicentennial only happens every 150 years.

Nobody can pronounce it anyway, and the birthday hangover still has Ottawa buzzing.

A half million people descended on the capital to join in the Canada Day party and it was a blast. Contrary to media reports about the downsized crowd, there were about 100,000 waiting in line at the two entrance points one had to pass to get on to Parliament Hill.

I know, because I was one of them.

Given my advanced age, (64), I briefly contemplated watching the noon-day celebration from the comfort of my own living room. But I could not resist the lure of the real thing.

During my eight years as Heritage minister, July 1 was a heavy workday. With speechmaking, artistic programming and multiple important visitors, the team was always on high alert to make sure nothing went wrong. Inevitably, something always did.

One year, we festooned the VIP seats with paper flags sponsored by a national organization representing Canadian chicken farmers. We did not realize that the ink of Canada’s ruby red flag stamped on cheap paper had not set. So when every diplomat rose sing O Canada, I watched in horror as a ragged red flag outline was permanently imprinted on all bespoke diplomatic garb.

One year, Queen Elizabeth looked curiously bemused as two well-hung male circus performers wrapped in nothing but swaddling cloth, performed gyro technics that required the head of one to perch comfortably on the butt of the other. On the same occasion, Her Majesty was introduced to Inuit throat singing, which requires two singers to literally pass the music from one throat to another, again requiring unusual human contact.

Most Canada Days pass without too many hitches, as did our 150th.

Of course, the naysayers could probably point out that when the prime minister did a shout out to all parts of the country, he forgot, of all places, Alberta.

It certainly was not Freudian, as Justin Trudeau has made a special effort during his time in office to reach out to a province that has not always been so friendly to the Liberals.

Luckily, the program was long enough that Trudeau was able to recant his error and proclaim his undying love for the forgotten province in time for the closing song.

There were a couple of other snafus. In one instance, the king of Canadian broadcasting got a more fulsome intro than the real future King, The Prince of Wales, ever the diplomat, took it in stride, delivering a beautifully bilingual speech which sought to underscore the wonderful benefits of being Canadian.

During his visit, the future King was elevated to the highest recognition that Canada could offer, Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada.

But that honour was awarded in a private ceremony, which did not run the risk of further bifurcating the Canadian identity.

Amongst republicans, and many elites, our relationship with the monarchy is tepid at best and frosty at worst. Many believe that when the current reigning monarch passes on, the institution should follow suit.

Because of the schizophrenic connection to the Royal Family, Canada Day organizers are always balancing the challenge of honouring any Royal attendees while not appearing to be too obsequious. A tall order at best.

The retirement of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation icon Peter Mansbridge, timed to coincide with his final day of coverage at the 150th birthday, was the perfect frame to segue into an introduction of the Prince of Wales. Mansbridge received high praise in the program and his spouse, Cynthia Dale, even got to sing O Canada on the air.

No such warm welcome was offered to visitors from the Royal Family, with barely a nod given to the Duchess of Cornwall, who has always been overshadowed in life by the memory of the deceased Lady Diana.

All in all, the celebration of 150 years of togetherness was truly Canadian.

The prime minister embraced aboriginal protesters and even managed to bring them onside, mentioning their grievances at multiple turns in the ceremony.

Even the appearance of Irish singer Bono caused the crowd to thrill with his message that we are a welcoming nation, unlike the bridge burners that seem to be taking over south of the border.

All in all, it was a great celebration. We reflected on successes and the many mistakes Canada made in the first 150 years.

Learning from both, we are all the better for it.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.