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Parliament Hill. Photo courtesy of Bob Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons

Five countries that can school us on tense national holidays

By Pieta Woolley



What are we celebrating, exactly?

As Canada inches closer to its sesquicentennial celebrations, the complexity of what the country represents is casting a shadow across the events planned for July 1.

First Nations, especially, are speaking out about how the Dominion has harmed them. Metis artist Chrsiti Belcourt, for example, has organized #resistance150, a multimedia arts project featuring Indigenous and allied artists, and including t-shirts.

Recognizing that Canada represents stolen land — especially in British Columbia, where few historic treaties were signed — the City of Vancouver is recasting Canada 150 as “Canada 150+,” with the “+” representing the First Nations experience. Events there will also have a reconciliation focus.

In Quebec, too, the Parti Quebecois plans to make some noise during the Canada 150 celebrations, reminding all Canadians that the Dominion has not always been good to them. In fact, nearly half of all Quebecois aren’t looking forward to the official celebrations, according to a recent poll.

All of this may lead Canadians to think that we’re global experts in self-reflection — and, of course, saying “sorry.” But Canada is far from alone in its multi-perspective national holiday.

Here are five countries that can school us on tense celebrations.

1. South Africa’s Freedom Day/Unfreedom Day, April 27

The official holiday: Freedom Day was declared in 1994 by then-President Nelson Mandela and celebrates the country’s first post-Apartheid elections.

The unofficial holiday: Unfreedom Day was initiated by Abahlali baseMjondolo, a Zulu shack-dwellers movement in Durban. It calls attention to the plight of the poor in South Africa, who, organizers argue, are still not free.

How it’s celebrated:
Through arts, music and films. In 2009, police intervened, and a number of people were arrested. They were later released without charges.

2. Australia’s Australia Day/Invasion Day, January 26

The official holiday: Australia Day marks the first arrival of British ships in 1788 and the claiming of Australia for England. 

The unofficial holiday: Earlier this year, thousands marched to commemorate instead the impact of colonialism on Australian Aboriginals. Characterized by signs saying, “You are on stolen land,” the Invasion Day protest looks a lot like it could be taking place in Toronto or Vancouver.

How it’s celebrated: For more than a decade, critics of Australia Day have asked for the national holiday to be moved to a less inflammatory date.

3. New Zealand’s Waitangi Day, February 26


The official holiday:
Waitangi Day celebrates the treaty-signing between the British Crown and more than 500 Maori chiefs. The country has transformed the holiday,  which didn’t include much Maori leadership until the 1950s, into a full-blown celebration of Maori culture and reconciliation efforts.

The unofficial holiday: Protests regularly mark Waitangi Day, with critics noting that New Zealand has a long way to go toward righting historical wrongs. 

4. U.S.’s Independence Day, July 4/Juneteenth, June 19


The official holiday: The Declaration of Independence from England was signed on this date in 1776. The national public holiday is marked by Macy’s fireworks display and the Boston Pops’ Fireworks Spectacular, as well as many more splashy events.

The less official holiday: On June 19, 1865, the U.S. declared an end to slavery. This day, Juneteenth, is recognized as an observance but not an official holiday in most states. Black Americans have a long history of both being excluded from July 4 festivities and refusing to celebrate altogether. In 1852, during the country’s Civil War, former slave Frederick Douglass gave the famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

How it’s celebrated:
Parades, family reunions, jazz performances and historical re-enactments, as well as Miss Juneteenth contests.

5. France’s Bastille Day, July 14

The official holiday:
Bastille Day is a commemoration of the storming of the Bastille jail in 1789, during the French Revolution. It includes a major, historical military parade.

The less official holiday: Bastille Day has become a target for a range of protests. On July 14, 1995, thousands marched in Paris, protesting against nuclear testing in the South Pacific. In 2009, the most famous of the many Bastille Day youth riots occurred, when young people burned more than 300 cars in a Paris suburb because of unemployment and a lack of opportunities. A similarly scaled protest happened in 2015 but with more than 700 cars torched. In 2014, protestors worldwide used Bastille Day to protest against France’s plan to sell warships to Russia. And, of course, in 2016, ISIL claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack on people out celebrating Bastille Day in Nice. A bus drove into a crowd and killed 86 people.

How it’s celebrated: angrily. 



Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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