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Back in the 1960s the familiar Canadian identity was smashed, and as with Humpty Dumpty, no one has been able to put it back together again.
If you weren’t there, you are probably tired of hearing about the ’60s from those who were. Woodstock, Sgt. Pepper, summer of love, hash brownies, yada yada yada. Why don’t you just get over it, you want to ask those aging hippies drooling into their memories (or are they fantasies?). And you’ve got a point. But before you dismiss the ’60s as an overhyped boomer-generation acid flashback take a look at Bryan D. Palmer’s new history of the decade, Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era (University of Toronto Press). Palmer, a professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, better known for being a labour historian, argues convincingly that the 1960s was a turning point in Canadian history, much more important for transforming the country’s image of itself than for its much ballyhooed sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
The first thing that strikes the reader of Canada’s 1960s is just how much went on during the decade. Each of Palmer’s chapters could be a book of its own. The Diefenbaker-Pearson interlude, Cold War spy scandals, the rise of political terrorism in Quebec and left nationalism in English Canada, Trudeaumania, Red Power, feminism, the Waffle—all had a role in shattering Canadians’ comfortable notions of what the country represented. Palmer quotes the poet Al Purdy: “the little eddy that is my life/ and all our lives quickens/ and bubbles break as we join/ the mainstream of history.” Purdy was reflecting on the October Crisis in Quebec in 1970, but his observation that Canada had become “a different country from the one where I grew up” is the larger theme of Palmer’s book.
Looking back, one of the most astonishing changes that took place in the 1960s was the transition from the jowly septuagenarian John Diefenbaker, prime minister until 1963, to the dashing skirt-chaser Pierre Trudeau, prime minister just five years later. What were voters smoking that caused them to make such a dramatic shift? Bryan Palmer blames Gerda Munsinger. Hardly anyone remembers Munsinger nowadays. She was a faded good-time girl with ties to the criminal underworld who slept with a couple of Diefenbaker cabinet ministers and who the RCMP suspected, briefly, of being a Soviet agent, our very own Mata Hari. In the normal course of things she would hardly merit a footnote in the history books. But in the context of mid-’60s politics, she was dynamite waiting to explode. Canadians moan about the low level of contemporary political debate; in 1965 the situation was even worse. It was conventional wisdom that, in the words of the Liberal cabinet minister Judy LaMarsh, “Parliament was sick.” Neither Conservatives nor Liberals could win a majority; the country seemed to mistrust both equally. The party leaders despised one another; the House of Commons was a squabbling bear pit; scandalmongering was the default setting of government. When he learned about Gerda Munsinger’s past connection to the Conservative opposition, Prime Minister Lester Pearson threatened to dredge it all up if the Tories did not tone down their criticisms of his government.
As a piece of political theatre, l’affaire Munsinger came to very little, but for Bryan Palmer it signifies much. If nothing else, it put Canada on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. There was nothing like a Cold War sex-and-spy scandal to make the country seem grown up, sophisticated, important. Suddenly the staid, even prudish image of official Ottawa was replaced by visions of champagne and call girls in the corridors of power. Munsinger precipitated what Palmer calls “a thaw in the iciness of political life.” Canadians were loosening their ties and kicking off their shoes. As Pierre Trudeau would discover, sex appeal went from being disreputable to something that could attract adoring crowds on the hustings.
After Munsinger, Palmer turns his attention to another bit player in the national drama, this one in the world of sport. In 1966 the Toronto boxer George Chuvalo, “Canada’s Great White Hope,” took on Muhammad Ali at Maple Leaf Gardens for the heavyweight championship of the world. Ali is an iconic figure now, but in the mid-1960s he was more reviled than revered. He had become a Muslim, taken a new name (he was born Cassius Clay) and come out against the war in Vietnam. The Establishment hated him; as Palmer says, the only reason his bout with Chuvalo came to pass was because no American city would host an Ali title fight. The boxing world expected a slaughter; instead it got a classic. The Canadian slugger, who was thought to be no match for the smooth Ali, went the full fifteen rounds, absorbing everything the American threw at him without once going down. Ali won the fight, wrote a reporter, but Chuvalo won the crowd. The son of East European immigrants, raised in The Junction, a working-class Toronto neighbourhood, Chuvalo emerged as an improbable symbol of Canada: an underdog who stood toe to toe with the American bully and fought him to a standstill. Palmer uses the fight as the centrepiece of an insightful discussion of ethnicity, anti-Americanism, Canadian character and national identity.
Canada’s 1960s also contains discussions of the New Left, the rise of the FLQ in Quebec, the flag debate, the emergence of “Red Power” among Canada’s Aboriginal population, and more. Again and again Palmer shows how the ’60s was a watershed decade, marking the demise of a particular definition of Canadian identity, what he characterizes as “British Canada.” Centennial year, and particularly Expo 67, both noisy celebrations of Canadian success, seem to contradict this argument. But in Palmer’s reading, Expo did not so much reveal a triumphant Canadian identity as it disguised the tensions that were threatening to tear it apart. When US President Lyndon Johnson came to the fair, his visit had to be shrouded in secrecy for fear that he would be set upon by anti-war protestors. Later that year President Charles de Gaulle of France shouted his famous “Vive le Québec libre” from the balcony of Montreal’s city hall and René Lévesque formed a new political party to fight for Québec independence. As the novelist Hugh McLennan observed, “the bright promise of the Centennial Year and Expo 67 did not last as long as the Centennial Year itself.”
But like Humpty Dumpty, when the old identity shattered, the pieces could not be put back together again. “The irony of Canadian identity in the 1960s,” Palmer writes, “was that as the old attachment to British Canada was finally and decisively shed, it was replaced only with uncertainty.” The familiar “isms”—socialism, feminism, nationalism, separatism—combined to subvert the old Canada, but no new identity emerged to take its place. Instead, Palmer argues, Canada became, and remains, a fractured society “still very much in need of definition.” More than acid rock and the Yippies, this is the real legacy of the ’60s.