Formal Canada Day celebrations forced to go online, but the town was still bustling

Celebrations in downtown Victoria on Wednesday looked like a Canada Day T-shirt with nowhere to go.

In striking contrast to the tens of thousands of people who pack the Inner Harbour each year for July 1 activities — including the formation of a living Canada flag on the lawn of the B.C. legislature, concerts and food trucks — there was, instead, the odd red-and-white Maple Leaf flag on a car, T-shirt or hat that seemed to disappear in what felt like an ordinary day.

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Government Street was a popular spot, though, and many people gathered on pop-up outdoor patios, keeping to their bubbles.

Security staff at the legislature said people had been asking about the fireworks, unaware that mass celebrations had been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some families sat with a couple of hundred other people to listen to speakers at the legislature only to learn they were not attending the traditional Canada Day celebrations, but an event recognizing the solidarity between Black and Indigenous People, and the abuses and discrimination they have experienced.

Community organizer Kati George-Jim said: “It’s a celebration of our collective bond and experiences as human beings.” Their celebration was about rising as people who have been “dehumanized by colonial systems like the Canadian state,” George-Jim said.

But those who spoke on the steps of the legislature were, at times, drowned out by speakers at the other end of the lawn, who addressed a handful of people as, among other subjects, they declared the pandemic a hoax.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said she used the day to catch up over breakfast and lunch — at a distance — with friends she had not seen in months.

Helps, who was looking forward to online celebrations televised on CHEK TV on Wednesday night, said she was encouraged to see people out around Victoria enjoying the day, despite the cool weather. “It feels really full downtown, which I was really happy to see,” Helps said. “Government Street was packed and bustling. The patios were full and there were a lot of people wearing red and white, and just exploring the downtown, even though there’s no big celebration.”

It has been a challenging year on many fronts, Helps said, with demonstrations in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs that shut down transport links, the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter campaign “all the things that, I think, we need to grapple with in terms of what it means to be Canadian.”

She added: “For me, Canada Day is a really important day. I know for a lot of people it’s an unqualified celebration of Canada and, you know, that’s good for people who want to treat it like that. For me, it’s a reflection about what does it mean to live here, what are all the benefits of living in a country like Canada.”

Premier John Horgan said Canada Day provided much to reflect upon.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that we are all connected and that we do our best when we work together,” Horgan said in a statement.

“I am incredibly proud of how British Columbians have risen to this challenge. We have seen acts of generosity as people have helped their neighbours and loved ones stay safe and cared for.

“We have discovered that our communities are full of everyday heroes and that no job is insignificant. We have seen that when presented with an obstacle, we have the innovative resources to overcome it, right here in B.C.”

Saanich-Gulf Islands Green MP Elizabeth May spent Canada Day still in quarantine having recently flown from Ottawa. May, former leader of the Green Party, taped a Canadian flag to her railing and made brunch. “We are missing all the usual parades and events that I usually do from Sidney to Salt Spring to Saturna to Pender,” May said. “Mostly just counting our blessings that we are Canadians and at home.”

Large celebrations were replaced in many parts of the country with backyard gatherings and digital events as people marked a Canada Day unlike any other in Canada’s 153-year history.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent part of his morning with his family harvesting broccoli at a farm operated by the Ottawa Food Bank. The organization said demand has levelled out since an initial surge, but it now expects another large spike in need once recipients max out payments through the $80-billion Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Trudeau noted the difficult circumstances many people found themselves in this year, such as families separated from loved ones, including front-line health workers. He pointed to a Canada Day one year into the Second World War when there was a message of hope and opportunity in the face of a crisis.

“That was the reality our parents and grandparents were called to face. That was the challenge to which they rose and this is the country they built,” Trudeau said, standing alongside his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau. “On this Canada Day, it is our turn. We must now restart and rebuild a Canada for the 21st century.”

That included ongoing efforts at reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called on the country to work as one to close gaps that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“This is a collective challenge, one that I feel Canadians are embracing,” he said in recorded remarks. “I have faith that our best days as First Nations and as country are ahead of us.”

April’s mass shooting in Nova Scotia and the need to address systemic racism marked Gov. Gen. Julie Payette’s Canada Day message. She spoke about her confidence in Canadians to heed the lessons of 2020 and not remain indifferent to many challenges.

“That will build on our ability to act collectively, to act as one for the good of all,” Payette said.

Many of the statements would have been delivered in-person, instead of by video, but the pandemic forced the cancellation of events such as the annual pomp and pageantry on Parliament Hill in favour of online offerings to keep crowds from gathering.

The Ottawa show was streamed live and virtual fireworks at night as part of a buffet of digital activities Canadian Heritage curated. The 53 bells of the Peace Tower still rang, with two special recitals streamed live.

A group of demonstrators gathered on Parliament Hill to denounce lockdown restrictions.

In some parts of the country, crowds were allowed to gather for fireworks displays, including in Alberta, where up to 200 people could gather for audience-type outdoor community events such as fireworks and festivals.

At the Alberta legislature in Edmonton, where Canada Day typically begins with a pancake breakfast, no formal events took place although a steady stream of families arrived to stroll around the fountains.

“I think for us it’s family tradition. We associate the legislature grounds with being patriotic Canadians,” said mother-of-two Cheryl Tanouye.

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