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Canada marks the Confederation countdown as it celebrates 147th birthday

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OTTAWA - The fathers of Confederation started the clock ticking towards nationhood 150 years ago, and Canadians got into the countdown spirit on Tuesday during this year's Canada Day celebrations.

The Dominion of Canada was born on July 1, 1867 — the big sesquicentennial year will be celebrated in 2017. But 1864 was a significant year in Canadian history too, as noted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his annual Canada Day speech.

"In 1864, meeting in Charlottetown and in Quebec, our fathers of Confederation dreamed a magnificent dream, a dream of a united Canada that would take its place among the countries of the world, prosperous, strong and free," Harper said.

"One hundred and forty-seven years later, this is their dream: Canada a confident partner, a courageous warrior, a compassionate neighbour. Canada, the best country in the world."

The year 1864 was indeed pivotal, starting with an agreement in June by rival politicians in the united provinces of Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario), to pursue the "federative principle."

They joined up with legislators from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia who had already planned a meeting in Charlottetown that September to discuss a possible Maritime Union. It was there that the broad idea of Confederation was agreed upon — with the specifics discussed months later in Quebec City.

The city of Charlottetown was marking those auspicious 1864 talks with a major Canada Day festival featuring musical performances by the Barenaked Ladies and Tegan and Sara, among others. Some of the activities were taking place at Confederation Landing Park, the spot where some of the fathers of Confederation arrived by ship to begin their historic talks.

"With Prince Edward Island being the birthplace of Confederation and during this significant anniversary year, we're celebrating our distinct role and place in Canada's history like never before," PEI Premier Robert Ghiz said in his own Canada Day address.

The weather on Parliament Hill was sweltering on Tuesday, and for a brief time there were tornado warnings in the region as a storm front rolled in.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston inspected the solemn ceremonial guards in their heavy red serge and bearskin hats as his wife Sharon and the Harpers — Stephen, Laureen and their teenaged children, Ben and Rachel — looked on.

Tens of thousands of sweaty revellers dressed in red and white listened to performances by acts that included Serena Ryder and Marianas Trench.

The Snowbirds aerobatic team, trailing red vapour in honour of Canada Day, roared in formation overhead. Retired astronaut Chris Hadfield was aboard one of the planes.

In an interview, Hadfield recalled the moment in his life he felt most Canadian — a 2001 spacewalk outside the International Space Station. He had been helping to assemble the Canadarm robotic device, and as he finished, his colleagues played the national anthem for him.

"There I was, floating weightless in space, crossing the east coast of Canada, listening to 'O Canada' be sung for the whole world to hear," Hadfield said.

"I actually tried to straighten out my spacesuit as much as I could, and stand at attention to honour that song. I've always been a proud Canadian, but to have the Canada flag on my shoulder at the time as Canada's first space walker, that made me as proudly Canadian as any moment in my whole life."

In Halifax, Canadian flags outnumbered those of World Cup contenders for the first time in weeks.

Canadians are also marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War this year.

"We should be very proud of our country — and we are," said veteran Larry Sinclair, who marched in the annual Canada Day parade in Halifax.

Sinclair — whose uncle died on Vimy Ridge in France in 1917 — served two terms as president of Nova Scotia's Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada association.

"I'm very proud to see everybody take pride in their country," he said of the Canada Day festivities. "It's getting bigger and better all the time, and I think it should get bigger and better all the time."

On the other side of the country, thousands of people were participating in Canada Day celebrations in downtown Vancouver.

"Canada is special to me because it's my dream plan," said Gilbert Astete, a recent immigrant from the Philippines who has applied for permanent residency.

"It's the best country."

Back in Ottawa, Sharon Pate, 38, an Edmonton oil-and-gas employee who once lived in England, said it was her time abroad that made her most feel Canadian.

"Whenever I'd hear 'O Canada' being played for any type of event, I'd cry; there was just that surge of pride," she said on the stately grounds of Rideau Hall.

"They'd always say: 'What part of America are you from?' And I'd say: 'The best part, the part that's not America — Canada."

With files from Steven Chua in Vancouver and Geordon Omand in Halifax

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