Mackenzie King, Diamond Jubilee of Confederation, 1927

Mackenzie King speaking at Diamond Jubilee, 1927

Canadians celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21 and Canada Day ten days later. The first national observance of Dominion Day, as it was known then, occurred on July 1, 1927, which was the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation in 1867. The centrepiece in Ottawa was a radio address by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. To the contemporary ear, his remarks were a cringe worthy attempt at extravagant oratory in the service of national myth making. King’s central rhetorical device was to contrast how a “group of huts” populated by Indigenous peoples in the primitive solitude of the forest had been transformed by “two great races” into a robust country taking its place among the nations of the world. It is instructive to consider King’s remarks through an Indigenous lens, through the concept of Dominion, and through the Doctrine of Discovery.         

The Speech

Four hundred years ago, Canada, from ocean to ocean, was a primeval forest, unknown to the civilized world. Its verdant grandeur lay mirrored in the mighty rivers and inland seas. The boundless plains, concealed within its depths, rivalled in their sweep vast stretches of mountain range, unsurpassed in immensity, and unparalleled in in antiquity. Through these ancient solitudes the Indian roamed, the lord of the forest, the monarch of all he surveyed.

“Group of huts”

In the perspective of history it would seem that our country has been well and truly named. Canada, when discovered, was the home of the Indian. Legend has it that the name, Canada, is derived from the Indian word, Kanata, which means a group of huts. If we are to go back to the beginning of things, where shall we find a truer picture of the primitive than afforded by a group of huts?

The Confederation of Canada, the Diamond Jubilee of which we celebrate today, was the culmination of a two-fold undertaking, the task of settlement and of government which began more than three centuries ago.

Claiming Canada

Settlement and government of themselves are not sufficient to make a country. They must be continuous and combined. When, at the close of the fifteenth century, John Cabot, under royal charter from Henry VII, planted on the Canadian mainland the banner of England and the first cross, and when, early in the following century, Jacques Cartier erected a great cross, on which were the fleur de lis, and the words “Long live the King of France,” these intrepid mariners bequeathed their names to our country as its discoverers. It can hardly be said that they were its founders. They established no authority, they set up no colony. Their presence at the dawn of history was, however, strangely prophetic of the two great races that were to develop settlement and government in our midst . . . From a group of huts to a group of provinces, such was the development of Canada in the period that intervened between the rounding of our country and Confederation . . .

If the period prior to Confederation marked the development of Canada from a group of huts to a group of provinces, it is equally true that the period succeeding Confederation has witnessed Canada’s transition from a group of provinces to a nation among the nations of the world:

A land of scattered huts and colonies no more,
But a young nation, with her life full beating in her breast,
A noble future in her eyes – the Britain of the West . . .

“Indian habitations”

As we view in retrospect our country’s history, what impresses us most is the very brief time within which so much has been achieved. Even today we have not lost the traces of the earliest Canada. In the background of the present, there remain the Indian habitations – the little groups of huts, silhouetted against the forest depths, content to remain within its shadows that the larger Canada, emerging from obscurity and shade, may take her place in the sun among the nations of the world . . .

In seeking to be worthy of our past, to build wisely in the present, how can we do better than to remain true to the spirit of those whom we honour today; not the Fathers of Confederation alone, but that long procession of  discoverers and explorers, pioneers and settlers, sailors and soldiers, missionaries and traders; the men and women who have hewn their homes from the forests, who have developed our resources, fashioned our industries, extended our commerce; the moulders of thought and opinion and ideals in the realm of letters and art and government; that vast unnumbered company, long since gathered to their fathers and now resting from their labours, whose courage and daring, whose heroic purpose and steadfast endurance, whose vision and wisdom, manifested in a multitude of ways, have created a record of achievement unequalled in the romance, and unsurpassed in the pageant of
history . . .

Dominion from sea to sea

One cannot but be impressed with the sublime faith and the spirit or reverence which in the humblest and the highest have been so generally apparent. From every side they seem to have caught glimpses of  of “The Vision Splendid.” “He shall have Dominion also from sea to sea.” It would almost seem that this ideal had been present to the hearts and minds of all, and that they had worked together from the beginning to this great end. Can we do better than to find in these words a like inspiration, remembering always “Where there is no vision the people perish,” and that “His truth endureth to all generations.”


Source: The speech appearing here is found in W.L. Mackenzie King, The Message of the Carillon and other Addresses (Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1927), pp: 14-29.
More information: “Canada Day,” The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Radio Broadcast:  Library and Archives Canada has an audio recording of King’s 1927 speech.
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and blogger and a former Member of Parliament. See his website for his latest book, Speeches That Changed Canada.


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