Empire Day in the Schools of Ontario: the Training of Young Imperialists: A Review
In Empire Day in the Schools of Ontario: the Training of Young Imperialists, Robert M. Stamp examines Empire Day celebrations in Ontario schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The author successfully shows the relevance of Carl Berger’s thesis, that early Canadian imperialism was a form of nationalism, by linking the popularity of Empire day celebrations in Ontario schools with the development of Canadian identity.
The first empire day celebrations took place in 1899, at the urging of Canadians like George Ross, during a period of high Imperialist fervor in Canada. The author correctly demonstrates the dual strain of Canadian identity of this period; both imperial and nationalist. George Ross, for example, believed in instilling in children “a greater love of Ontario, for Canada, and for the Empire.” The conception of Canadian identity as both imperial and nationalist ensured a high level of enthusiasm for Empire Day celebrations. Stamp also points out that imperial exercises served more direct purposes like acting as assimilating agents of the non-white populations and, once a militarist component was introduced, to give Canadians a sense of pride and accomplishment in their ability to defend the empire.
But Empire Day celebrations, starting in the interwar period, would wane and eventually shed its former imperial connotations.
The author successfully argues that the reduction in popularity of Empire day celebrations was linked to the changes in Canadian identity brought on by two central factors: the influence of American culture and the decline of imperial sentiment among Ontarians. The latter resulted primarily due to the economic depression, which forced society to turn inwardly and solve its own problems, as well as the sense of accomplishment felt by Ontarians with their contribution to World War I.
American culture was also reaching a larger share of Ontarians, as Stamp cogently demonstrates, via radio and other media, so that “Empire Day and all that it stood for simply could not compete with the powerful lure of American popular culture.”
The author does admit that World War II would see a renewed interest in Empire Day celebrations, as they were originally intended, but it represented the last gasp of Imperial sentiment in Canadian identity.
The author’s sources are of a contemporaneous nature and draw from mainly primary sources in order to justify his thesis. Of most valuable to the article are those sources taken from the Ontario Department of Education as well as newspapers like the Globe that are capable of offering an alternative view of Empire Day celebrations, one that differs from those expressed by people like Ross who tended to personally benefit from the celebrations.
While it has been over three decades since the publication of Carl Berger’s famed thesis on the nature of early Canadian imperialism, authors like Robert Stamp continue to provide further evidence of the basic soundness of Berger’s arguments. By tracing the rise and fall of Empire Day celebrations in Ontario schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Stamp has been able to show to what extent the potency of imperial sentiment in Canada was directly related to the level of development of the Canadian national identity. To put it another way, the imperial enterprise in early Canadian history was supported as long as the national identity was seen as being tied up with Rule Britannia. And as Stamp has shown, once that was no longer the case, the days of imperial celebrations were numbered.