Among Canadians, perhaps the most misunderstood holiday of the year is Victoria Day. It is now commonly just referred to as the May long weekend, or “two-four” weekend, and is a time when Canadians enjoy travelling to the lake or campground for their first significant outing after a long winter. It’s also a time when many begin to plant their gardens in the belief — sometimes mistakenly — that warm weather is here to stay for the duration of the growing season.
A 2015 survey of 1,000 people by Canadian family history website Ancestry.ca found that almost half of the respondents didn’t know why Canada celebrates Victoria Day. According to the website, 12 per cent of respondents thought the first long weekend in May was meant to mark Memorial Day in the U.S., while another 36 per cent said they had no idea.
But there was a time when the British Empire and Queen Victoria were celebrated with great enthusiasm across Canada. In fact, recognition of Queen Victoria’s birthday precedes Canadian Confederation. The legislature of the Province of Canada (now Ontario and Québec) in 1847 passed a law officially recognizing the monarch’s birthday on May 24.
Following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, May 24 was by imperial decree turned into Empire Day throughout the British Empire, while Canada decided it should also be commemorated as Victoria Day. To ensure the holiday fell on a weekend, royal proclamations were issued changing the date until 1952, when the Governor-General-in-Council moved Victoria Day to the Monday before May 25. This year, Victoria Day is May 23.
Since 1953, Victoria Day has been recognized as the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II in Canada. In England, it’s celebrated in June, even though she was actually born on April 21, 1926.
Prior to her death, Queen Victoria was the symbol of the British Empire, and Canadians were quite proud to call themselves citizens of an empire that in her time comprised nearly a quarter of the world’s landmass and a quarter of its people.
In his book, Pax Britannia: The Climax of Empire, James Morris wrote that it was made up of “a wild jumble of territories, and ranged from proper nations like Canada ... to backwaters like British New Guinea, into whose murky hinterland no Englishman had ever penetrated.”
During Queen Victoria’s era, Canada was the only self-governing nation outside of Great Britain in the British Empire. At the time, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc., were simply colonies within the empire.
But even Canada was not immune to the tug of monarchy and empire, as when Victoria ruled, Canadians were still officially British citizens. And it was a citizenship that was proudly recognized by Canadians as an association with the most powerful nation in the world. Many Canadians, at least the English-speaking segment of the population, were just as jingoistic as Londoners when it came to things British.
There was a mystical quality to the benefits of British citizenship, even if those who expressed their pride had never stepped foot in Britain.
The Great Seal of Canada was designed in 1869 to show Her Majesty Queen Victoria seated, crowned and holding a sceptre in her right hand and an orb in her left with the coats of arms of the then four provinces making up Canada surrounding her.
Canadians applauded the British as they roamed the Seven Seas as if it was their own personal possession. The British were the top dogs of the world. According to Morris, they seemed to be “the arbiters of the world’s affairs, righting a balance here, dismissing a potentate there, ringing the earth with railways and submarine cables, lending money everywhere, people the empty spaces with men of the British stock, grandly revenging wrongs, discovering unknown lakes, setting up dynasties, emancipating slaves, winning wars, putting down mutinies, keeping Turks in their place and building bigger and faster warships.”
Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, who was born in Scotland, firmly believed in citizenship within the folds of the British Empire despite being one of the driving forces behind creating a new self-governing nation in North America. “A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die,” said Macdonald during his last election campaign.
But since Canada was technically independent, Macdonald could pick and choose how he would support the maintenance of the British Empire. Macdonald’s government even imposed high tariffs on imported British goods to protect Canadian industries.
“Why should we waste men and money on this wretched business?” queried Macdonald, when asked to send Canadian soldiers to the Sudan. “Our men and money would be sacrificed to get (British Prime Minister William) Gladstone and Co. out of the hole they had plunged themselves into by their own imbecilities.”
In the end, Macdonald agreed to send a small contingent of Canadian voyageurs (many from Manitoba) to pilot boats up the Nile River to rescue General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who was surrounded by the Mahdi’s troops at Khartoum — but only after the British also agreed to pay the costs of their service in Africa.
When Victoria’s diamond jubilee was celebrated on June 22, 1897, in London, England, among those in attendance was Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was knighted on jubilee morning by the queen.
The Times of London called the jubilee the first great pan-Britannic festival: “History may be searched, and searched in vain, to discover so wonderful an exhibition of allegiance and brotherhood amongst so myriad of men ...”
“It was a properly Roman sight,” wrote Morris, “a pageant of citizens and barbarians, too, summoned from the frontiers ... As a tribute to Victoria it was a moving reminder of all that had happened to the British since she had come to the throne, so long ago that most of the spectators could hardly imagine a Britain without her.”
The Queen was said to have gone to bed that evening quite pleased by all the fuss that was made over her.
Queen Victoria’s reign was at the height of the British Empire, when phrases such as “Great White Queen” and “Great Mother” resonated during times of expansion. In Canada, the “Great Mother” was invoked as the guarantor of treaties signed between aboriginal people and the federal government. Sitting Bull, when fleeing the U.S. 7th Calvary after the Sioux killed George Custer and his men at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, invoked the protection of the “Grandmother’s (Queen Victoria’s) Peace” as he and his followers crossed the border into Canada.
But that was then and this is now. Today, celebrating the British Empire and its ties to a long-dead queen seems a bit surreal and rather passé in modern Canada. Despite that, enjoy the May long weekend!