Counting the days that count: new book lists 10 days that shaped the Canada we know today

By John Ackermann

Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the old saying goes. However, according to a new book, modern Canada was built in about 10. From “Just watch me” to our most recent $10 bill, Paul Henderson’s game-winning goal in the Summit Series to the Tragically Hip’s farewell concert, 10 Days That Shaped Modern Canada author Aaron Hughes argues these are the days that have helped define the country as we know it today.

The Edmonton-born Hughes, currently a professor in the Department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester, says the book began as something of a pandemic project but also to educate his wife about Canadian culture.

“I came up with the idea during COVID. I was a visiting professor at Oxford, and I was stuck. All the libraries were closed,” he explained. “I have a wife who is Italian, and she doesn’t know a lot about Canada. She somehow thinks that Canada is almost an extension of the United States. So, I wanted to prove her wrong.”

Hughes agrees distilling a half-century of Canadian history into a mere 10 days is an interesting thought exercise, to say the least.

“I realize that most people who read the book would say it’s ridiculous,” he said. “My goal for the book is, as soon as people say, ‘I wouldn’t have chosen that date, I would have chosen this date’ – the minute they do that, they are doing what I want them to do, which is think about our rich history.”

“The goal of each chapter is not only to explain what happened on a particular day but what happened because of it.”

Hughes admits there are a couple of days that didn’t quite make the final cut.

“The one I really miss not putting in was Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope – really a true Canadian hero. Another one I thought would have been good [was] when Elijah Harper stood up in the Manitoba legislature with his eagle feather and said ‘No’ – which essentially killed the Meech Lake Accord.”

The first of the 10 Days is October 13, 1970, when then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau uttered what is perhaps still the most famous soundbite in Canadian history – “Just watch me.” That was his response to a CBC reporter who asked how far he intended to go to curb the activities of the FLQ and end the October Crisis. Three days later, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, which curtailed the civil liberties of Canadians across the country.

Read more: Unlikely Insider: A West Coast Advocate in Ottawa

Hughes draws a through line from the use of the War Measures Act in 1970 to end the October Crisis, to the use of the Emergencies Act in 2022 to end the Convoy Protest.

“It’s the idea is that even though this happened in 1970, we see it move through the generations. It’s something that’s still very much with us today,” he explained.

“The goal then is to get Canadians to think about what it means for us to be citizens and what does it mean for the government? How can the government curtail rights at its whim?”

Hughes wrote the book with a general audience in mind, one that may not even be all that interested in Canadian history.

“Sometimes when you say history, people’s eyes glaze over. So, I tried to make it a book that would be exciting and interesting,” Hughes said.

“But the basic goal behind the book was to show Canadians and others that Canada has this rich history. It’s [also] to show that Canada is a work in progress. Having said that, I think the Canadian experiment is unprecedented. I know no other country that has really tried to do what we’re trying to do. I don’t think we always are able to do it, but I want people to have a certain pride in Canada and to believe in it.”

10 Days That Shaped Modern Canada is available from the University of Alberta Press.

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