KNOX – Grassroots celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday are best

Songhees residents Dalyn Campbell, left, and Pauline Stewart show off the Canadian flags on the balconies of the their condominium complex. (Image: Darren Stone, Victoria Times Colonist)

WHAT’S REMARKABLE isn’t that Pauline Stewart persuaded 96 of her Songhees Point neighbours to hang flags from their condo balconies for Canada’s 150th.

No, what’s extraordinary is that her 84-year-old twin did exactly the same thing at her own condo complex in Ottawa. Identical twins, identical flag displays, 4,400 kilometres apart. Imagine that.

Which raises the question: What are you doing to mark the sesquicentennial?

This story goes back to 1967, Centennial year, when Stewart and her twin, Mary Dooher, both lived in the nation’s capital.

On Canada Day Eve, the sisters bundled six or seven of their children (they had 10 between them) to what was advertised as a “torches and sparklers” night on Parliament Hill.

Fifty years later, Stewart can remember the kids lighting the darkness and, as June 30 gave way to July 1, fireworks erupting in the sky. “It was such an enchanting evening.”

Stewart and husband, Barry, left Ottawa long ago, live in the condos at 50 Songhees Rd. now, but for half a century the memory of that night has remained. It inspired her as the 150th approached. “I thought I’d like to do something to celebrate this anniversary.”

Her first idea, handing out free hot dogs to passersby, did not go down well. Then she thought of adorning the entire complex with flags, visible to the crowds gathering for the July 1 fireworks.

It wasn’t a hard sell. The strata council bought in. A team of 30 residents quickly formed to divide the work. An unnamed benefactor donated the flags. Absentee residents were tracked down; all granted access to their homes.

Wednesday morning, grey- and white-haired residents lashed red-and-white flags to the balconies, grinning the grins of people who had just come together to do something worthwhile. “It’s community building,” said wind-whipped resident Ian Dallas (who just happens to have a July 1 birthday, as does Barry Stewart).

You can see their display — bits of it, at least — from many Inner Harbour vantage points. It will remain until July 5.

You’ll also see something similar in Ottawa as of Friday. Dooher, who speaks to her sister by phone several times a day, took up her twin’s suggestion that she organize a similar effort at her 35-storey, 150-unit condo building there.

That’s what’s great about this story: It’s a rare grassroots effort, as opposed to one staged, or at least funded, by government.

Some would say that’s what separates the sesquicentennial from 1967, when ordinary Canadians’ passion for Centennial year took off like a wildfire. That view itself might be revisionist history, though. People forget that the Centennial initiative was, at least at the beginning, a top-down exercise.

Victoria author Tom Hawthorn covered that in his new book, The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country. “At first, Canadians showed little interest,” he wrote. “The announcement of a federal program to plan the celebration was met with silence and indifference.”

Somewhere along the line public attitudes changed, though.

Maybe it started when Prime Minister Lester Pearson lit the flame on Parliament Hill on New Year’s Eve 1966. That was shown live on the CBC. Ditto for the next day’s three-hour special, when Gordon Lightfoot debuted Canadian Railway Trilogy. “Everybody in Canada watched it,” Hawthorn says.

Bobby Gimby’s Canada (“now we are 20 million … ”) became the national earworm. Alex Colville’s Centennial coins (universally scorned when introduced, Hawthorn notes) jangled in every pocket from Victoria to St. John’s. Those who lived on railway lines remember the Centennial train’s horn sounding the first four notes of O Canada as it pulled in. Expo 67, a million miles away in Montreal, glittered like Oz.

Hawthorn quoted Centennial commissioner John Fisher, who urged Canadians to mark the occasion in their own way: “The Centennial belongs to you. It does not belong to governments. Do something. It does not matter how small your effort is.” Canadians bought in.

That was the reminder from Stewart and her neighbours Wednesday. It’s not the government’s celebration. It’s not the government’s country.

© Copyright Times Colonist

Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloops lad who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. 

About Mel Rothenburger (5785 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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