Original Kitchener, Waterloo
May 24, 2021
If I have my arithmetic and my wikipedia facts lined up correctly, today is the 176th iteration of the celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday here in our neck of the woods.
Victoria Day is my favourite secular holiday, for a lot of reasons, starting with how deliciously peculiar it is that, after all those years, we’re still doing this. No one else does; not in England, nor in the rest of the nations of the troubled kingdom where Victoria’s successor reigns, nor elsewhere among the 15 “Commonwealth Realm” polities that remain.
Victoria’s birthday is not even universally celebrated in Canada: It is a general holiday in Alberta, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Yukon; and a statutory holiday in British Columbia, Ontario and Saskatchewan.
It makes sense that the peoples and nations of pre-Victorian Canada — i.e. the Atlantic provinces and Québec — don’t particpate. I wouldn’t mind if federal authorities began treating this as another celebration of Canada’s diversity. That would pave the way to reclaiming the holiday as something special to my province. I like to imagine it as la Fête nationale d’Ontario, but without the overtones of Bostonais-style separatism.
Traditions evolve. I wouldn’t mind if the fireworks came to an end, for instance. Given that most of the meaning has been lost, and that May 2-4 gunpowder play is now almost entirely private, we can dispense with it. All that noise that went on until the wee hours last night in anticipation of the big bang tonight struck me as in-your-ear version of in-your-face tagging of public vistas with cans of spray paint.
Regardless of what it has come to mean, an unbroken tradition of 176 years is valuable in and of itself. It would be a shame, and probably very bad luck, to break it completely. It’s always possible, of course, to start a new tradition, but we’d have to wait until 2297 to match the way this legacy has lasted.
The usual arguments that Canadians should break ties with the monarchy and finally do away with these quaint, subservient practices have become an annual Victoria Day ritual of sorts. With the widely prevalent idea of “colonialism” being the root of all evil, this line of thinking has gained a fresh relevance.
I don’t buy it. But I don’t believe in “debate”. There are myriad sides to every important question. The best way forward is to move beyond routine positions, pro versus con, towards a respect for the complexities actually involved.
In this case, coming up with a counter-argument to these latter-day republicans would not only be a waste of time, it become a reckless return to battles millions have fought and died for over the last 200+ years.
Canada, especially Ontario, Canada, is the product of such a battle. We’re what remains of the realm of Victoria’s grandfather on this continent after the thirteen disgruntled colonies rose up to overthrow their government and establish settler home rule.
Through a convoluted personal journey, I’ve become what I like to call a “conservatory progressive”. The “tory” in conservatory is deliberate: It declares that, by temperament and conviction, I’ve become a “neo-loyalist” — or, better, a “latter day loyalist.”
Ironically, I got this way by trying to imagine what the complete opposite would be of what passes for “conservatism” nowadays. I’ve been deeply concerned about how things have been unfolding in our part of the world since the “Common Sense Revolution” began raging out of Queen’s Park 26 years ago.
When it started flaring up again with the arrival of our current Premier on the provincial and federal scene, I was appalled. But my equilibrium has been restored. My sense is that Mr. Ford is cut from different cloth than Premier Harris, while his party and his leadership team remain totally immersed in the mindset and spirit of ‘95.
Victoria Day to me is a symbol of 262 years of relatively peaceful transition. We’ve had a few flare ups of the Yankee / Rebel spirit every now and then. This is understandable, given that we live next door to the separatist settler republic, and given that the U.S. storyline has been dominant for going on 250 years now. That’s how nations are supposed to be born.
When you tell the story this way, we come out losers, cowards, sheep. Fortunately, the spirit of rebellion has never prevailed. Loyal we’ve remained, more or less.
Symbols are what we choose to make of them. To me, the monarchy is a symbol of continuity, of evolutionary change, of peaceful transition. We’ve gotten to where we are today by adapting and building on what exists, step by step.
I think the idea of a head of state who, even though she is the commander-in-chief of the spiritual, military and civil spheres of the four countries of the UK plus 15 more lands overseas, has absolutely no power over any of us, is simply brilliant.
The idea of leaving succession to genetic chance, rather than personal ambition, partisan squabbling and majority rule, is similarly astute.
As a latter day loyalist, I can sing “God Save the Queen” with heart and conviction.
I should clarify, though, that a true progressive only looks forward. There is no golden age to return to, nor are there any past glories worth bragging about. It’s the future that counts.
I should also fess up that I’m not sure I really believe any of this. It’s all make believe.
In this time of plague, of conflict and schism, of looming economic collapse, when efforts to redress historical wrongs appear destined to failure, and when the “Man and His World” attitudes of the 20th-century linger on to the point where such arrogance has become an existential threat to the planet Earth itself, you have to work hard to keep a modicum of hope alive. That’s why I like to keep an eye out for omens that might be imagined as promising.
This is pure make believe, remember. So please don’t waste our time trying to convince me that it really is hopeless.
Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday. Just as Victoria Day is my favourite secular holiday, Pentecost is my favourite spiritual holy day. I love the numbers: Seven times seven plus one equals fifty. I love the idea of the light of the spirit visible over the heads of an assembly of believers. I love the idea of speaking in tongues that are marvelously varied yet universally intelligible.
In the Christian story, Pentecost is as meaningful as Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving. The fact that the modern nation state and the world of commerce have never even tried to make anything of this holy day seems almost miraculous. So to this make-believer, Pentecost falling on Victoria Day weekend can be taken as a fortunate coincidence.
If the powers that be conspired to abolish la Fête nationale d’Ontario once and for all, I’d make believe that this, too, is a good omen. It would be an indication that we no longer need to emphasize the “us and them” distinction this province was founded on.
It is possible that our destiny has been obscured all this time by the twin imperial storylines that have been dominant for so long, and that any day now, the fog may lift. (I should mention that I like to imagine Victoria’s maritime empire and the continental superpower we’re attached to as two sides of the same coin, like Rome and its one-time colony, Constantinople, in days of old).
It may soon become apparent that Sir Wilfrid Laurier was right, but off by a century, when he prophesied that “the 20th century belongs to Canada” (or, in his exact words, “The 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century.”)
The promise of the Canadas, including Ontario nation, may not be to right the wrongs of 1776, 1789 and all the bloody horrors that have followed. The task at hand is not to set things in order, whether from the reactionary or the revolutionary perspective, nor is it to reconcile such opposites.
Victoria Day 2021 is a good time to make believe our manifest destiny is to show the world how to rise above all that, and move forward with a storyline better suited to the circumstances, the challenges and the possibilities of the present hour. It sounds warm and fuzzy: peaceful transition, rather than rule the waves, live free or die, masters in our own house, to the ramparts, and so forth. But it is a storyline through which Canada could fill the 21st century.