Photos by Andre Gagne
“150 years? Nah,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the 25,000+ true wet strong and free gathered on Parliament Hill and those watching across the country. “Look at us: Canada is being born today!”
From coast to coast (yup, even Alberta!) Canadians were raising their flags high even if the red and the white were flying a little damply here in the Capital Still, huddled under umbrellas and parkas, the most devoted Canucks and tourists braved sometimes two hour wait times to get onto the Hill for the biggest party in the country. For Trudeau and many others, however, it wasn’t all about patriotic merriment as the Prime Minister’s speech to the Nation moved between joyous and somber.
Eyeing the teepee erected under the Peace Tower earlier in the week by Indigenous activists, Trudeau would not forget those who’s land he now stood upon in his ten minute address that walked through much of Canadian history, even the moments we are not proud of.
"As we mark Canada 150, we also recognize that for many, today is not an occasion for celebration. For centuries, the Indigenous peoples have been victims of oppression — from the very time when the first explorers celebrated their discovery of a 'new' world," Trudeau said.
"As a society, we must therefore recognize past mistakes, accept our responsibilities, and take action to ensure that each and every Canadian has a bright future."
The festivities kicked off celebrating this Indigenous culture as dancers and drummers lead the entourage towards the stage and Buffy Sainte-Marie urged the crowd (as well as royal guests Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall) to “take heart and take care of your link with life”.
This message would continue when Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Honourable Mélanie Joly walked upon the mammoth stage set up. Flanked by the Canada 150 logo, she too spoke of reconciliation and of the country moving forward while not ignoring our past mistakes.
“We are at a pivotal moment in our history,” said Joly. “The history, the many moments and events that have shaped our country are as varied as Canada itself. We can’t be afraid to talk openly about our history. We must continue to listen to one another, to engage, to learn and grow together because that is what reconciliation and what Canada is all about.”
Though the rain held off momentarily, the usual Snowbirds flyby was grounded with those looking to the air having to make due with a single CF-18 punctuating the end of "O Canada" as performed by Marie-Josee Lord and Ottawa’s own Orkidstra.
Hosts Ottawa-born actress Sandra Oh and French-Canadian musician Mitsou worked well together to charm the drying audience, discussing their favorite aspects of Canadian life mentioning everything from poutine to hockey. 150 youths would then be joined by the Maritime Bhangra Dancers, singer Marie-Mai and Laurence Nerbonne for a tuneful acrobatic display that ended with plums of colourful smoke wafting over the crowd.
Afterward, Trudeau spoke of how a “good land” became “the greatest”, touching upon Expo 67, Olympic triumphs and our soldiers efforts at Vimy Ridge. He talked of our multiculturalism and acknowledged that “our true strength and resilience flows through Canadian diversity.”
“We may live in British Columbia, Yukon, the Northwest Terrirtoes, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nunavut, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland or Laborador…but we embrace that diversity while knowing in our hearts we are all Canadians.”
Before leaving the stage, Trudeau realized his gaff in missing one province and shouted off camera “I love you Alberta” before rectifying the unintentional omission publicly later on during the show.
Though there would be some surprises (a Shania Twain appearance, for example), the appearance by U2 frontman Bono and guitarist The Edge had been much touted a week before the day’s events. What wasn’t known was what role the Irish musicians would play. Would Bono give a speech? Would they perform a tribute to Leonard Cohen? Would they come out of a giant maple red painted lemon?
“Thank you for having us. The rain you can blame on the Irish,” Bono joked, playfully bantering that the band had side gigs playing weddings and Bar Mitzvah’s but they’d never done a 150th birthday party before.
“The Irish have been welcomed here for hundreds of years and still now. From the famine where we were in many respects refugees to now when we arrive by choice bringing ingenious little start-ups and approximately 17,165 Irish pubs.”
As The Edge started strumming the familiar opening chords to U2’s 1991 hit “One”, Bono alluded to the more oppressive policies of some current governments by stating that “when others build walls, you open doors. When others divide, you open wide. Where you lead, others follow.”
While lines and bus delays prevented many from making it onto the Hill, those who did sang along while others wiped away tears. Another touching moment came when Montreal musician Patrick Watson gave a stunning tribute to Canadian troops past and present in a performance of “Luscious Life” while military photographs were displayed behind him.
By the time Walk Off the Earth closed the show with a performance of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up“, the hill was bustling with activity though many, like Emily Watkin, opted to keep their distance from the bigger crowds opting for the lessened hoards on Sparks Street.
“There’s just so much going on,” Watkin said. “Being able to celebrate all these different cultures together today under one flag is really exciting.”
Canada Day festivities continue city-wide including concerts in Major’s Hill Park, free shows by the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, the grand reveal of the new National Arts Centre and, of course, a huge finale tonight back on the Hill hosted by Trudeau and wife Sophie capped off with what is promised to be the biggest fireworks display in Canada Day history!