For many of my childhood summers, Canada Day was celebrated on the grounds of the Picton Legion Hall (now The CAPE). Our country’s birthday party always took place in the evening, with fireworks at dark.
In a child’s eyes, it was a very special event, in part because of its location. The sweeping lawns of the old McMullen house offered the perfect setting for a party. The home, itself, which once numbered among Picton’s finest residences, had become the headquarters of Branch 78 Royal Canadian Legion. I recall once tiptoeing inside the front entrance with a friend to admire the staircase, which to youngsters of 12 or 13 seemed straight from Gone With the Wind. It was easy to imagine the original grandeur of this fine old house.
On Canada Day, the grounds of the property were strung with bright white lights, adding to the festive air of the occasion. There was always a fish pond with prizes for the children, sometimes a ring toss, Bingo, food booths, and pony rides. Each year, Legion caretaker Walter DeMille would lead his daughter’s pony, Kewpie Doll, from the fairgrounds barns to the Legion lawn where youngsters lined up to ride her. For youngsters, this was one of the evening’s most popular attractions.
As it began to grow dusk, everyone waited impatiently for the fireworks to begin. By today’s standards no doubt they were rather unremarkable, but to children of the day it was a magical show of pyrotechnics. There were many oohs and aahs as firecrackers lit up the sky.
Recently on Dean Hyatt’s popular website, The Locals Good Old Memories of Prince Edward County, these celebrations were recalled by many members who shared fond memories of them. They had been much more than just our country’s birthday parties. Each year it had been a time of coming together to celebrate what it meant to be Canadian. The fact that Canada Day events took place at the Legion Hall added to the significance of the day. Veterans who had fought for their country in the Second World War understood perhaps better than any of us what it meant to be Canadian.
Legion members eventually voted to sell the old McMullen property because of a dwindling membership and high maintenance costs and today share the Elks Hall. A volunteer Picton committee took over Canada Day celebrations and even before the sale of the Legion property Canada Day events had moved to Delhi Park.
This year, Canada Day celebrations in Prince Edward County have been cancelled by a unanimous vote of Canada Day committee members. They will stand in alliance with their indigenous neighbours following the horrifying discovery of the graves of 215 children at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Nothing related to Confederation will be celebrated.
This is a disappointing decision in several ways. Canada Day has always been more than simply a party to celebrate Confederation. Traditionally it has become a day of celebrating all that it means to be Canadian. In cancelling it we are being asked to turn our backs on all of our country’s achievements, to show condemnation for one dark, unforgivable chapter in its history. We are, in fact, asked to feel shame for Canada today, an inherited shame from a past we, of today, did not forge.
We should apologize, as a country, for the residential schools, for the cruel treatment of Canada’s indigenous people, memorialize the 215 children who died and strive to educate and move forward with greater understanding. We cannot erase the past or allow the events of 154 years ago to provide the sole definition of our country. We cannot turn our backs on the proud moments in Canadian history and there have been many.
Cancelling Canada Day will do nothing to remedy the evils of the past, sins committed by our great great grandfathers. All we can to is to recognize and admit to these wrongs and work diligently to right them. The refusal to celebrate our country on Canada Day dishonours the young men who died for it. We cannot rewrite the past, but we can shape the future, by condemning past wrongs and working towards change, while still celebrating all that makes us proud to be Canadians.