OTTAWA – Paper Maple Leaf flags soaked by an early morning downpour quickly turned into makeshift fans to ward off sticky afternoon warmth Saturday as thousands of people squelched and squished their way around Parliament Hill to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.
About 25,000 people — a waterlogged rainbow coalition of rain slickers, ponchos and umbrellas — were on hand as the midday show wrapped up, but the downtown core teemed with celebrants throughout the day as the sun came out and crowds amassed anew in anticipation of the evening show.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was to return to host the second instalment, was on hand earlier Saturday alongside his family, as well as Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, for a series of performances that began with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s rousing version of “Carry On.”
A single CF-18 streaked over the Centre Block, drowning out the final notes of O Canada, before the prime minister delivered a rousing, forceful and enthusiastic celebration of the unique power and resilience of the Canadian character.
“We don’t aspire to be a melting pot,” Trudeau told the cheering crowd.
“We know true strength and resilience flows through Canadian diversity. Ours is a land of original peoples and of newcomers, and our greatest pride is that you can come here from anywhere in the world, build a good life and be part of our community.”
The week’s celebrations have been tinged with the resentment and frustration of indigenous people chafing over the country’s oppressive, colonial past — a sentiment symbolized by the teepee erected not far from the stage, and expressed overtly by protesters in Montreal.
There, a small group marched through the city’s Old Port to denounce what they called colonialist and racist policies, throwing coloured leaflets and chanted slogans as they made their way through a crowded tourist area, monitored by dozens of uniformed police officers.
“Our past is far from perfect,” Trudeau acknowledged in Ottawa. “For centuries, Indigenous Peoples have been victims of oppression, from the time when the first explorers celebrated their discovery of the new world.”
He urged the crowd to acknowledge the country’s history and to confront its reality.
“We must educate ourselves and dedicate our efforts to progress,” he said. “It is a choice we make not because of what we did, or who we were, but because of who we are.”
The speech also included one monumental gaffe: as he recited the names of the provinces and territories, he seemed to overlook Alberta. Twitter and host Sandra Oh were among those who quickly called him out on the mistake.
Realizing the error, Trudeau jumped on the front of the stage, called out, “I love you, Alberta,” and blew a kiss, before sitting down and shaking his head. He apologized again later, citing the excitement of the occasion.
U2 frontman Bono and guitarist the Edge took the stage after Trudeau, acknowledging the country’s reputation for tolerance and consensus-building.
“This is your home, and we are grateful guests in it,” said Bono, whose brief remarks alluded to the protectionist and confrontational policies of U.S. President Donald Trump.
“When others build walls, you open doors,” he said before a stripped-down version of U2’s 1991 hit, “One.”
“Where you lead, others follow, and that’s the real reason the Edge and I are here today.”
Canada’s decision to open its doors to her family is why Lorana Rios, 41, decided to come to Ottawa to celebrate Saturday. She arrived here from Mexico more than a decade ago, and the opportunities she’s had make her grateful, she said.
“I want to celebrate living in Canada — it is a safe country,” she said.
The teepee on Parliament Hill had been a source of some tension earlier in the week, and while activists chanted and waved signs during Trudeau’s speech, their encounters with the crowd at large were calm.
Regina resident Rhoderic Sia, 40, a red, flag-bedecked colander on his head, acknowledged their cause, as did several of the day’s main speakers.
“Everybody has their own opinion,” said Sia, who hails originally from the Philippines.
“I respect it, but we still have to respect what Canada is now. Coming from another country, being here is all about your freedom. You can have everything if you work hard.”
Sia had been planning his trip to Ottawa for two years, but was beaten to the celebratory punch Saturday by celebrations in Newfoundland and Labrador, where a boatload of 75 early risers set out on the North Atlantic to be among the first to welcome Canada Day.
Kellie Loder of St. John’s sang O Canada as the vessel pulled in front of Cape Spear. There was a moment of silence afterward to remember those who have fought and died in battle over the last 150 years.
Prince Charles expressed his gratitude for Canada setting an example.
“We should be clear and proud that we are celebrating a country that others look to as an example — an example of fairness and inclusion, of always striving to be better,” he said.
“Around the world, Canada is recognized as a champion of human rights, as a peacekeeper, as a responsible steward of the environment and natural resources, and as a consistent example of diversity and the power of inclusion.”
Even Trump himself got into the spirit of the occasion, tweeting his congratulations on the occasion of Canada’s birthday and acknowledging the prime minister by name, whom he described as his “newfound friend.”
Others marked the day by becoming newfound Canadians at dozens of citizenship ceremonies across the country, including one in Halifax where 53 people from more than 20 different countries celebrated Canada’s 150th birthday by taking the oath of citizenship in Halifax.