TORONTO – Dominic Ardonato doesn’t see much reason to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.
The retired high school teacher complains about a disappointing economy, racial divides, and political squabbles that dominate his life in Montreal. He’d much rather reminisce about the magic of Montreal’s Expo 67, the spectacular world fair that marked Canada’s centennial and served as the country’s global coming-out party.
“It was the best of times. And now it’s the worst of times,” the 69-year-old declares over the phone while reminiscing about Montreal’s extravagant birthday bash.
“(There was a) new metro, a new world exposition site, a new downtown, all kinds of high-rise buildings. It was just growing. Growing and growing. And lots of money. And now there’s no money.”
It’s hard for any celebration to compete with the memory of Expo 67, which drew more than 50 million people to the city and established a national pride among those Canadians eager to distinguish themselves from their colonial roots. It even had its own theme song, Bobby Gimby’s “Canada,” which gained widespread popularity.
Contrast that to the lineup of events marking Canada’s 150th, which “just sounds like some government program,” says political analyst Nelson Wiseman.
“There’s nothing special about 150 for the rest of the world,” says the director of the University of Toronto’s Canadian studies program.
“I don’t hear any of my students talking about Canada 150, it’s largely a bureaucratic creation. I mean it’s there on the calendar and I think more Canadians are going to be visiting Ottawa this year, I think more Canadians are going to travel across the country — but it’s not in the league of 1967.”
It’s not for lack of trying.
Parks Canada is offering free admission to national parks and historic sites this year, a program that crashed its website when launched in December.
And the federal government is spending $500 million across the country to fund parties and promote “12 days of celebrations” that kicked off June 21. That was National Aboriginal Day, the first of four key events including Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day on June 24, Canadian Multiculturalism Day on June 27 and Canada Day on July 1.
Canadian Heritage has set the bar high for their success: “In honour of Canada 150, this year’s edition will be the most spectacular in Canadian history,” promises one government press release.
U2’s Bono and the Edge have been enlisted to help build buzz for Parliament Hill’s July 1 festivities, with the rock ‘n’ roll superstars booked to play one song at around noon. Other performers include Gordon Lightfoot, Dean Brody and Alessia Cara.
But on the whole, Canada 150 events seem to have fallen “with a bit of a thud,” says Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
If there’s any hubbub, it’s more frequently centred on criticisms — that the celebrations ignore atrocities against Indigenous Peoples that went hand-in-hand with the country’s formation; that there’s little resonance for many Quebecers, especially amid 375th birthday plans in Montreal; that public funds should have been spent elsewhere.
It doesn’t help that the party comes just two years after Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a damning report detailing the horrific sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect that indigenous children suffered in residential schools over more than a century, says Rima Wilkes, sociology professor at the University of British Columbia.
“There’s a lot more awareness now that Canada is not a perfect country with a perfect history. So, given what we now know from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, how excited are we supposed to get?” says Wilkes.
One could argue this is also just a sign of our skeptical times — we’ve entered an age filled with anxiety and distrust of authority and institutions.
“People are a lot less keen to wave the flag for a nation state, especially in Canada, which has always been kind of an ambivalent nation anyway,” says Trent University Prof. Christopher Dummitt, citing the often fractious relationship between this country’s French, British and Indigenous Peoples.
But many young people, too, have a hard time viewing their future with optimism, note Wiseman and Bothwell.
So many of today’s millennials are struggling with a tough job market and soaring housing costs, and the path to building wealth is proving much steeper than the one travelled by their parents.
“When I was looking for work in the 2000s it didn’t seem that great,” says Wilkes, born in 1971. “But even compared to that it seems worse now.”
Contrast that to the promise of the late ’60s, an era ripe for reinvention and idealism.
Bothwell points to steady economic growth, deeming it “absolutely the peak of Canadian prosperity.”
Those were the years Canada passed Medicare, enhanced the Canada Pension Plan, and ditched the British Red Ensign in favour of a new Maple Leaf flag.
“You could see that there was a future. It was exciting,” he says, noting evidence of centennial largesse — including marquee landmarks — remain strewn across the country.
Centennial investments funded some 860 buildings, including the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, N.L., and the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg.
Wilkes wonders if the bigger problem with Canada 150 is an apparent lack of focus to various activities.
“There’s no event. When we had the Olympics here everyone was super into it and excited but there’s no thing that this is being tied to,” says Wilkes.
Nevertheless, Bothwell believes Canadian nationalism hasn’t wavered that much and will be made apparent on July 1.
“I intend to raise a glass to Canada on July the first. And I think Canadians — in our quiet way — will do that.”