Should brands mark Canada Day this year?

With calls to “cancel Canada Day” growing louder in the wake of recent grim discoveries at former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, brands that typically mark the holiday are facing something of a dilemma this year: To celebrate or not to celebrate.

A new report from Zeno Group Canada, based on an online survey of 1,520 Canadians conducted by Angus Reid between June 24 and 25, shows that Canadians have mixed feelings about celebrating the July 1 holiday, and are equally divided when it comes to brands choosing to mark the occasion.

Zeno Group’s managing director Julie Georgas said there’s no easy answer when it comes to brands leveraging one of the calendar’s major holidays as a way of celebrating Canadian pride and inserting themselves into consumers’ long weekend plans.

But it’s important that any communications this year be respectful and avoid striking a celebratory or overly patriotic tone, she said. “This is a moment when Canadian companies can lead, show purpose and put their company values in action if they’re truly invested and committed to the support of Indigenous communities in Canada.”

Nearly one-third of Canadians surveyed said they will not be celebrating Canada Day this year out of respect for the country’s Indigenous population, although the research did find marked differences in attitude between age/gender and geographic region.

The majority of residents in Saskatchewan/Manitoba (59%) and Alberta are most likely to be celebrating Canada Day as usual, for example, while respondents in British Columbian indicated they are most likely to mark the holiday differently this year out of respect for Indigenous communities.

Younger Canadians, too, have expressed less enthusiasm for Canada Day celebrations, with just 42% of people 18-34 saying they will be marking the holiday as usual, compared to 53% of those 35 and older.

When it comes to the potentially thorny issue of brands celebrating the occasion, however, just over half of Canadians surveyed (56%) believe it is acceptable for a brand to post positive social content related to Canada Day, while 21% say it is unacceptable, and 23% remain unsure.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Canadians who plan to celebrate Canada Day (82%) indicated that they are comfortable with brands marking the occasion on social.

However, Zeno Group says the issue is “far from settled” among those who don’t plan to celebrate, with half (49%) saying it’s unacceptable for a brand to post positive social content and 18% saying it is acceptable. According to Zeno Group, that leaves one third of this group unsure where they stand on the question.

People are also divided about whether brands should opt for “Happy Canada Day”-type messaging (40%), or issue a call for Canadians to reflect on Canada’s history and honour the culture and traditions of the Indigenous community (41%). Women are more likely than men (50% versus 31%) to choose the latter option.

The report found that only 7% of Canadians support brands opting for the mushy middle, eschewing specific references to Canada Day and instead opting for non-specific language, such as wishing Canadians “a safe and happy long weekend.”

According to Zeno Group, it suggests that many people would prefer brands directly address the holiday, even if they have differing views on the appropriate manner to do so.

Georgas said that brands choosing to go ahead with Canada Day messaging need to ensure that it is sensitive and respectful. “It’s possible for a brand to meet Canadians in the middle and acknowledge Canada’s anniversary, while also acknowledging the treatment of Indigenous peoples and calling for awareness, education and support,” she said.

“This is a moment when Canadian companies can lead, show purpose and put their company values in action if they’re truly invested and committed to the support of Indigenous communities in Canada.”

However, brands that do opt to mark Canada Day on social can also expect to see some pushback from a “small but vocal minority,” the study found. Among those who feel it’s unacceptable for a brand to positive social media content related to Canada Day this year, one-in-five (22%) said they would no longer purchase products from companies that posted, while 16% indicated that they would publicly call them out on social media.

“For those brands that are interested in taking a different approach this Canada Day to acknowledge and honour Indigenous peoples, we would suggest crafting a message that aligns with the brand’s purpose, values and audience,” said Georgas. “As always, before weighing-in on sensitive issues, especially on social media, we advise clients to look internally to ensure that they are living their values first and that their intentions are not self-serving or performative.”

Chris Powell