On February 19 we’ll mark the 10th anniversary of getting our official holiday in mid-winter, now known as Family Day.
For years there’d been an unofficial observance of February 15 as the day when Canada’s new flag had first flown in 1965 and this had evolved in some places into Heritage Day. When he created an official holiday, Premier Dalton McGuinty decided it should be called Family Day, in line with his own emphasis on family.
Personally, I wish he’d stuck with Heritage Day. It seems to me we need to be reminded, at least one day a year, that we owe our current prosperous, privileged lifestyle to the efforts of generations of those who have gone before us. In a way we’re like the person on the top of a human pyramid who is supported by those below him who are in turn supported by those below them, and so forth.
Recently I’ve been doing research for a writing project that has taken me all the way back to the settlement days of the 1830s. Even though the first settlers seem, for many of us, to be the beginning of the line that has led us to the Canada we enjoy today, a considerable number of them wouldn’t have survived without the direct intervention of the Indigenous peoples who were already here. They passed on lessons in survival to the European settler community – from the medicinal value of native herbs to the technique for collecting maple sap and creating sugar.
Of course the fertile productive farms of southern Ontario would not exist today without the back-breaking work of those who cleared the dense and nearly endless forests. How did these people (my great-grandfather among them as an 18-year-old) find the strength and stamina to chop one monster tree after another, expanding clearings year after year until the farms we know today were created?
Every November we pause to remember the sacrifices of those who fought to preserve our way of life and our democratic values, but we seldom remember that we gained those democratic values through the efforts of a few hundred rebellious farmers who participated in the 1837 Rebellion. That short-lived battle is treated as a bit of farce in our history these days, but two rebels were hung for treason and many others were exiled. Their suffering wasn’t in vain because the rebellion finally got the attention of the British government which had ignored complaints for years about the aristocratic clique nicknamed the Family Compact, which did everything it could to undermine attempts to establish democracy. The reforms implemented set our country firmly on the path toward the open democracy we enjoy today.
Those families that were struggling to create their own farms were also creating the infrastructure for the communities beyond their own clearings. They were building and supporting churches, taking seats as trustees of the neighbourhood school board or township council, joining together in local co-operatives to provide fire insurance, make butter and cheese and link communities with telephone wires.
Groups like the Women’s Institute spearheaded community improvement projects, and spread knowledge among families. And let’s not forget the pioneering efforts of people like Grey County’s Agnes McPhail who became the first woman elected to parliament.
It’s not only about those who arrived 150 years ago. From Dutch immigrants following World War II to Syrian refugees today, the first generation of new arrivals generally absorbs hardship to give a better life to their children and grandchildren.
History’s not sexy for many modern, forward-thinking people. They’re more excited about the future. Now and then, however, we need to stop and thank those who made it possible to live the lives we do.◊