The Queen’s Birthday in Canada
by Garry Toffoli
“The Twenty-Fourth of May is the Queen’s Birthday.
If we don’t get a holiday, we’ll all run away.”
Many Canadians are familiar with that school yard jingle. It was certainly still in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s. It originated in the 19th Century with rumours that schools might not be closed for the holiday on the Queen’s Birthday. Monarchy is often claimed by its opponents to be the concern only of the elderly or the old fashioned. But there it was, Canada’s first student protest movement – formed to defend Canada’s royal heritage against the students’ elders. And it was a successful one at that – the students got their holiday! The memory of those young royal radicals was perpetuated throughout the 20th Century, when home fireworks were popular, with the ubiquitous “burning school house” being the highlight of the backyard display on Victoria Day.
Queen Victoria died in 1901. Why is Victoria Day still a hoiiday in Canada? A related question often asked is why do Canadians still celebrate Victoria Day when the people of the United Kingdom don’t anymore? The latter question, of course, betrays a colonial attitude in the mind of the asker. Why should Canadians even care if the British celebrate it or not in deciding what should be done in Canada. But the answer is even more emphatic.
The British no longer celebrate Victoria Day because they never did celebrate it. It is a uniquely Canadian holiday. The British do celebrate the Queen’s Official Birthday (i.e. Queen Elizabeth II’s) but the Canadian celebration of the Queen’s Official Birthday is also distinctly different from the British and is intimately tied up with Victoria Day.
There are three general reasons why Victoria Day and the Queen’s Birthday were, and are, so important in the Canadian calendar – their role in Canadian history; heritage and values; the Canadian climate; and the special nature of a holiday paying tribute to a real person.
First the history.
The Sovereign’s Birthday really began as a public celebration in London, England in 1785 when King George III, the first sovereign to reign over all of Canada, celebrated his birthday on 4th June with a Trooping the Colour ceremony by the Guards. The ceremony has been expanded, and the Household Cavalry was added in later years to the event, but the celebration has remained essentially the same in the United Kingdom ever since – that is a military one. The date has changed with different monarchs and Elizabeth II’s Official Birthday falls on a Saturday each year, usually the first or second in June. It is not a day off and there are few, if any, civic or public events as such other than the Trooping.
In Canada there was a different history. The King’s Birthday started with a military flavour as well. It was the occasion when the local militia, all the able-bodied men in a community, undertook their one day of compulsory training, if one could call it training. Basically they marched around for a couple of hours on the village square carrying their own muskets or rifles or pitchforks, then went for a beer at the local pub afterwards. The promotion of the Victoria Day weekend by a Canadian beer company in recent years as the “Two -Four” (a case of twenty-four bottles of beer) Weekend actually has historic roots therefore.
It was in the reigns of King George IV and King William IV that the idea of an “official” birthday emerged, as the two monarchs each decided to celebrate their birthdays from 1820 to 1837, not on the actual days they were born but on the day of their father, King George III’s, birthday (4th June), which had been the day of celebration for the six decades of that king’s long reign.
The observances were to change in Canada in Queen Victoria’s reign in a way that they never did in Britain.
Queen Victoria had a close relationship with Canada even though she never came here in person. Her father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, as a 23-year-old soldier, came to Canada to live in 1791 and stayed here until 1800, having risen to the position of Commander in Chief of British North America – one half of the position now held by the Governor General of Canada. Although the Duke died before Victoria was a year old, she knew the many Canadian friends of her father and was well aware of her Canadian heritage. She always took a special and personal interest in Canadian affairs, eventually sending all four of her sons and one of her daughters to visit, live in and work in Canada.- for example, Princess Louise as wife of the Governor General and the Duke of Connaught first as a soldier in his mother’s reign and later, returning in his nephew’s reign, as Governor General.
Queen Victoria came to the Throne in 1837. In 1840 the Province of Canada was created through the union of modern-day southern Ontario and southern Quebec. In 1845 the province, already feeling a special bond to the young Queen, made the Queen’s Birthday an official Canadian public holiday and it changed from a military event to a civilian one. It was still a relatively sedate celebration however. Then something happened.
The 1840s were a period of political turmoil which Canadians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries might not relate to – or perhaps they would. There was division between English and French, and battles over education – should there be separate schools, should the school systems be provincially controlled or locally controlled. A new populist political force, largely rural and western-based (the west in those days meant southwestern Ontario), had emerged to challenge the Toronto-Montreal eastern establishment. It was called the Reform Party. It eventually merged in an alliance with traditional eastern urban businessmen and became – the modern Liberal Party of Canada. And there was a separatist movement in the Quebec half of Canada. It was formed by Anglo-Montrealers who were upset by what they perceived as a pro-French bias in the government. In 1849 they burned down the parliament buildings, which were then in Montreal (and which is why they are not there now and why the capital of Canada ended up in Ottawa) and they issued the infamous Annexation Manifesto, calling for the separation of Canada from the British Empire and its annexation by the United States.
This was too much for the Anglo-Montrealers’ erstwhile allies and friends in English Ontario. Ontario conservatives formed the British America League, reaffirming loyalty to monarchical principles and the British Empire and advocating a different solution to the problems of Canada – a confederation of all the British provinces in North America. As part of this outpouring of loyalty and patriotism, the people of Toronto pulled out all the stops for the Queen’s Birthday and turned the next celebration into a day of demonstrating Canadian pride in their country and their Queen. Soon the Toronto-style celebration spread across the province and, after 1867, across the dominion.
The military parades were still an important part of the day, but there were public picnics and band concerts, sports events (the Queen’s Plate was originally run on the Queen’s Birthday), excursions, dinners, and eventually fireworks and the opening of cottages. And the Queen’s Birthday never looked back.
The key point that needs to be made is that these celebrations reflected not the ideas and tastes of the governments of the day but the ideas and tastes of the people. And that is why the Queen’s Birthday has always been celebrated in such diverse and ordinary ways, as well as grand ways, across the country. If one may paraphrase our republican neighbours to the south, the Queen’s Birthday is a holiday of the people, by the people and for the people and their Queen.
One could go out on a limb and say that Queen Victoria meant more to Canadians than she did to the British of the United Kingdom, because it was in Victoria’s reign that Canada was created and established its distinct identity. The idea thrown around carelessly today, that Canadians need to create their own identity, is nonsense. The did it well over a century ago and, as a result, Canada will always remain a Victorian country at heart, in the same way that the United States will always remain an 18th Century neo-classical country, because it was created in that era.
Victoria played an active role in Canadian development. For instance, she chose Ottawa as the new capital – the Westminster of the Wilderness, and named British Columbia, and she personally encouraged Confederation in 1867. But she was also the symbolic focus of Canadian unity. Sir John A. Macdonald, the Father of Confederation, said that the purpose of Confederation “was to declare in the most solemn and emphatic manner [Canadians'] resolve to be under the sovereignty of [Queen Victoria] and [her] family forever”. Victoria was truly the Mother of Confederation.
As a result, when Queen Victoria died in January 1901, the Canadian Parliament, independent of anything that was happening elsewhere in the Empire, created a memorial holiday “Victoria Day” on 24th May to remember the Queen’s birthday. That is the beginning of “Victoria Day” distinct from “The Queen’s Birthday” as a holiday. The new monarch, King Edward VII’s birthday was in November so Canadians decided to continue celebrating it officially on 24th May. King George V was born in June however so, in 1911, the King’s Birthday was celebrated in June and Victoria Day continued to be observed on 24th May. Except for two years, that remained the situation until Queen Elizabeth II came to the Throne in 1952.
1936 was the year of two King’s Birthdays in Canada. Canadians celebrated King Edward VIII’s official birthday on Victoria Day. But then he abdicated the Throne and his brother George VI became King on 11th December. The new King’s actual birthday, which was on 14th December, was also officially celebrated that year. The next year the official celebration was moved to June.
In 1939 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to Canada. The King was the first reigning monarch to do so. As part of that great tour the King’s Official Birthday in Canada was declared to be 20th May, when he was in Ottawa, and a Trooping the Colour was held on the lawn of Parliament Hill by the Canadian Brigade of Guards. It was the only year when a monarch had been in Canada for his or her official birthday until Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her official birthday in Edmonton on 22nd May, 2005.
In 1952 the official birthday of the new monarch, Queen Elizabeth II was celebrated in June in Canada as it was in the United Kingdom. But the next year it was moved to the Monday immediately preceding 25th May and Victoria Day was also moved from 24th May to that Monday. Victoria Day was so identified with the Monarchy, past and present, that the two celebrations were re-united. This was made permanent in 1957 by royal proclamation. And that is the situation today. The Official Birthday of Queen Elizabeth II and Victoria Day are two separate holidays but both are celebrated on the Monday that falls between 18th and 24th May inclusive.
A word should also be said about Empire Day. In some jurisdictions Empire Day was celebrated on 24th May, in England for example from 1904, and it is sometimes confused with Victoria Day. In Ontario Empire Day was the school day immediately prior to Victoria Day (i.e. 23rd May until 1953, unless that was a Saturday or a Sunday, in which case it would be the Friday before, and from 1953, always on the Friday before Victoria Day). Although it was an Empire and Commonwealth-wide celebratrion, it too was started in Canada – in Dundas, Ontario – by Clementina Trenholme Fessenden in 1898 (actually before Victoria Day was created from the Queen’s Birthday). In 1977 the date was changed to the second Monday in March and it was renamed Commonwealth Day (a name which it had been given in the United Kingdom in 1959). It was not made a public holiday however, remaining, as it began, as a school day for students to learn about the Commonwealth.
The second element in the success of Victoria Day is Canadian weather. In Britain spring comes in March, or even in February, as it does in much of Europe and the United States. In Canada spring doesn’t really come at all. We have what we call spring for a short period in April and May, but most of the world would say we go from winter to summer overnight (or over a few days) on some occasion within those two months. Either by coincidence or Divine intervention, reliably nice weather does not arrive in Canada until the Queen’s Birthday, giving real meaning to the term “Queen’s Weather”, even though it often rains on Victoria Day itself. As a result the Monarchy and summer weather became synonymous in Canada, and certain social customs developed around the day. One did not wear white before Victoria Day, gardens were not planted until then, cottage season did not begin until then. Since the short Canadian summer is so looked forward to by Canadians, the holiday gained added significance in their lives.
Finally, Victoria Day became a successful holiday because its focus is outward looking rather than inward looking for the celebrants. As important as Canada Day is, for example, it remains a holiday when government encourages us to tell ourselves how great we are. Deep down Canadians remain somewhat uncomfortable about that. It is like throwing a birthday party for yourself because you don’t think anyone else will. We are more comfortable when the United Nations says we are a good country than when we say it ourselves. Arguably the most successful Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa were those in 1959, 1967, 1990, 1992 and 2010 when the Queen was present or 2011 when the Duke of Cambridge attended. As our Sovereign and head of the national family, and our future Sovereign, the Queen and the Duke told Canadians that we, their people, were a good people they were proud of. That was natural and it felt good. On the Queen’s Birthday we are reciprocating by telling the Sovereign that she (or he, in the future) is a good monarch, whom we are proud of as the head of our national family.
In conclusion, the Queen’s Birthday and Victoria Day remain important joint holidays celebrated in Canada in the 21st Century because they were given life by the Canadian people. The celebrations are neither an imported tradition nor an artificial creation force-fed by government. Celebrating both a beloved monarch of our history and the reigning monarch of Canada ensures that the festivities are rooted in our history but will never be archaic or stale. Like the Monarchy itself, they are constantly being renewed in significance and style of celebration by the life and personality of the Sovereign of Canada to whom the tribute is given, and by the collective personality of the Canadian people by whom it is offered.
Copyright (c) 2013 Garry Toffoli