OTTAWA — Large celebrations were replaced in many parts of the nation with backyard gatherings and digital events as Canadians marked a Canada Day unlike any other in the country’s 153-year history.
It has been almost four months since governments ordered businesses closed and urged Canadians to stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus with restrictions only recently being eased.
Heading into Canada Day, the country had 104,204 reported cases of COVID-19, including 8,591 deaths and 67,954 recoveries, based on figures updated late Tuesday by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Millions have lost their jobs, government spending has skyrocketed to provide emergency relief — planned federal spending alone now tops $174 billion. Demand has also jumped for social services such as food banks.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent part of his morning with his family harvesting broccoli at the farm operated by the Ottawa Food Bank.
The organization says demand has levelled out since an initial serge in need during the pandemic, but it now expects another large spike in demand once recipients max out payments through the $80-billion Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
Speaking afterward, Trudeau noted the tough circumstances many people in the country found themselves in this year, such as families separated from loved ones, including front-line health workers.
He said this year was not the first time the nation’s birth was celebrated in tough times, pointing to celebrations one year into the Second World War, when there was a message of opportunity amidst a crisis.
“That was the reality our parents and grandparents were called to face. That was the challenge to which they rose and this is the country they built,” Trudeau said, standing alongside his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau.
“On this Canada Day, it is our turn. We must now restart and rebuild a Canada for the 21st century. My friends, I know that together we are ready.”
In her Canada Day message, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette noted April’s mass shooting in Nova Scotia, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and the need to denounce hatred.
“I am confident that we have and that we will not remain indifferent,” she said. “That will build on our ability to act collectively, to act as one for the good of all.”
The pandemic forced the cancellation of high-profile events like the annual pomp and pageantry on Parliament Hill in favour of online offerings to keep crowds from gathering.
Instead, the Ottawa show was streamed live, to be followed by virtual fireworks as part of a buffet of digital activities Canadian Heritage curated. The 53 bells of the Peace Tower still rang, with two special recitals streamed live.
Federal officials had already begun reshaping the annual celebration months ago, knowing that construction on the iconic Centre Block would force a change from the schedule in recent years where artists performed on a large stage set up on Parliament Hill.
As some of that work was underway, COVID-19 forced what Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said was a radical rethink of how to host the musical shows and making decisions well in advance without knowing what condition the country would be in come July 1.
“We’re happy that we were able to come up with this formula and we’re hoping Canadians will enjoy it a lot because they’ve made a lot of sacrifices in the last few months,” Guilbeault said in a morning interview.
Canada Day, he said, was “a day to celebrate those sacrifices and the fact that collectively we’ve pulled through this. It’s not over yet, but things are looking brighter.”
Some of the elements provided online could stay in place for future Canada Day festivities, particularly to help connect people who far apart, he said.
In other parts of the country, crowds were allowed to gather, including for actual fireworks displays.
On Tuesday, Alberta’s chief medical officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said that up to 200 people could gather for audience-type outdoor community events such as fireworks and festivals.
“Celebrate Canada Day safely,” she tweeted. “Wear a mask, wash your hands and stay (two metres) apart.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 1, 2020.
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press