The significance of the second Monday in March is hardly recognized now in Canada, but at one time, it was recognized by almost everyone, including schoolchildren. It is Commonwealth Day, celebrated as a public holiday in many of the 53 country members of the Commonwealth.
Canadian Clementina Trenholme, a loyalist to the Crown and a devotee of British traditions, introduced Empire Day to Ontario Schools in 1898. It was held on the last school day before Queen Victoria’s birthday, May 24.
Following Trenholme’s example, Lord Meath, who had devoted much of his life to youth and empire, introduced Empire Day to the United Kingdom in 1904. This day of public celebration was extended throughout the Empire.
Following the First World War, with the changing face of colonialism, celebration of Empire Day became a sombre day of remembrance. In 1926, a parliamentary resolution by the Labour Party prevented Empire Day from being a day of celebration.
In 1958, then-prime minister Harold MacMillan announced in the British Parliament that the name of Empire Day would be changed to Commonwealth Day, and the celebration would continue.
Canada was again at the forefront of this change. In 1868, the Royal Commonwealth Society had been formed. The first branch of the RCS in Canada was founded in Victoria in 1919 and still exists. The late Brian Graves, member of the Vancouver and Mainland branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society and, for a time, national chairman of the society, wrote to then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau that Commonwealth Day should be observed throughout the member countries on the same day.
It appeared on the agenda of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in 1975 and the Commonwealth secretariat agreed to set a date for Commonwealth Day. It was agreed in Canberra in 1976 that the date would be the second Monday in March.
I believe the date was chosen as no public holiday occurred in Commonwealth countries on this date, and therefore all children would be in school, but that was before spring breaks came into being in March.
In London, Commonwealth Day is celebrated at Westminster Abbey with a service attended by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, other members of the Royal Family and visiting dignitaries from the Commonwealth. The service unites peoples from every continent, every faith and every ethnicity.
In Canada, the official recognition is a federal government stipulation that the Royal Union flag be flown alongside Canada’s flag at government buildings nationwide, or where there are two flagpoles.
Branches of the Royal Commonwealth Society in Canada uphold the day with their own form of celebration. They can come together and hear a message sent to all members of the Commonwealth from the Queen.
In Victoria, the Vancouver Island branch of the RCS holds a special luncheon at Government House. The event is hosted by the patron, the lieutenant governor of British Columbia.
The annual interfaith service to celebrate Commonwealth Day will take place on Monday at 7 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa.
Wendy Halliday of Sidney is president of the Vancouver Island Branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society.