Canadian Holidays: VICTORIA DAY David Watts 1 July 2003
For some Canadians Victoria Day is an anachronism.
For those who are ambivalent or indifferent to monarchy, it seems strange we’re still celebrating the birthday of a Queen who never set foot in Canada, and died more than a hundred years ago.
Yet to those who value our heritage—the events and people who helped shape this country—it becomes clear the world’s longest serving Queen was an important player here.
When she came to the throne as a girl of eighteen, Canada was a pair of provinces in a continent that had seemed to turn its back on Europe.
Within a few months, both Upper and Lower Canada were marked by riots and petitions that suggested they might choose to follow the southern colonies out of the Empire
When she died in the second year of the 20th century, Canada consisted of seven provinces and two territories spanning three oceans, Earth’s second largest country in area, headed by a French speaking PM who charmed the world, and who claimed the new century belonged to his country.
Victoria’s reign was a yardstick of this development. She was also an influence on it.
She chose the site and name of our national Capital in 1857 Her husband Prince Albert headed a committee that brought in recommendations but the final decision was the Queen’s.
Four established Canadian cities—Quebec and Montreal, Toronto and Kingston—competed for the distinction but the choice fell instead on Bytown, a remote logging camp on the Ottawa River.
Victoria looked at the map and recognized the River was a boundary between French and English speaking populations. Putting the Capital too far either way would favor one group over the other.
Victoria was sensitive to the question of minorities. Her ancestry was not English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish but German, from Hanover. Critics used to call her “the Hanoverian Princess”
It was important that all her peoples, whatever their language, feel at home in her Empire. Nine years after she came to the throne she paid a visit to Channel Island of Guernsey in the North Sea.
The Channel Islands used to be part of Normandy, in France—the French still call them “Les Iles Normandes.” At the time of Victoria’s visit many of the Islanders still grew up speaking French.
The monument that commemorates her visit there is in French—the language she spoke to them.
Canada’s bilingual capital is also a monument to Queen Victoria though it was many years before some English speaking Canadians accepted bilingualism outside Quebec.
The name she chose was neither French nor English but first nations. When she said “Let the Capital be called Ottawa” she recognized the tribe after which the River and Valley were named.
Queen Victoria was aware of the first nations in the countries where Britain ruled and concerned for their well being. When Mounted Police first came west to drive out illegal traders, they told the first people “We come in peace the name of the Great White Mother.”
The first peoples accepted that. Perhaps they identified it with their own legend of White Buffalo Calf, a woman who was to come to heal them. However they thought, they came to trust her.
Sometimes Indians from the United States crossed the Medicine Line, as they called the border, to ask the White Mother’s Redcoats to protect them from the Long Knives of the US Cavalry.
This image of a great and caring women in a world run almost entirely by men made a difference on the Canadian character. The sixty-three years she reigned made this difference deeply rooted.
Though she had no direct political power, she was a moral and spiritual force. She cared deeply for peace, and said she hoped it would win out over the violent passions in the world.
After she was gone her influence continued. The Province of Alberta and Lake Louise are named after her daughter who lived here for some years as the partner of Canada’s Governor General.
Three cities—Victoria, BC, Regina, Saskatchewan and Victoriaville, Quebec—and an enormous island in the Arctic Archipelago are named after her. Our national Capital was her choice.
Our bilingual and first nations traditions were recognized in that choice. Members of her family continued the Canadian Connection with Britain and Europe after her reign was ended.
T o some the word “Victorian” means stiff and old-fashioned. Yet a few of the foundations established in Victorian Canada are very much with us and appreciated more than a century later.
Respect of different cultures, global communications, and connections between Europe and Asia are now seen as international values rather than imperial ones.
Canada’s development in the Victorian Age helped establish our international outlook. We have carried the best values of that age into the global era, blended with other traditions and values.
In Britain and abroad Victoria established the values of the Middle Class, whom she identified with more than the aristocracy. Canadians, who had no upper class, appreciated and respected this
Queen Victoria deserves a place in the country that passed from colony to nation during her reign. Canada is the only country where her birthday is still celebrated.
If Elizabeth II lives and reigns until the year 2016, only then will she exceed Victoria in years on the throne. In influence on our country, Victoria is unequalled as a Canadian Queen.
Whatever the future of monarchy or our relations with the United Kingdom, she has a secure place in our past. Good reason for her continued place with Canada’s sculptors and architects.
For most Canadians today the long May weekend marks the end of winter and the beginning of enjoying the outdoors, a time when gardens can be planted without risk of frost.
When Victoria became Queen as a teenager, it marked the end of an age of old men on the throne and sordid politics at court. She was an outsider on three counts: young, a woman and German.
People were demanding change in Britain and Canada. Republicans who wanted to see the Monarchy fail hoped to exploit her inexperience, and watched for her to make a misstep.
She quickly surprised them with her sense of dignity and determination.
When she died as a much loved Great Grandmother, she left a secure throne, a stable and promising Canada and a network with connections to almost every part of the globe.
Think of that as you head out on May 24.