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Canada 150

In 1967, change in Canada could no longer be stopped

We like to believe it was a series of political decisions, parliamentary votes, royal commissions and court rulings that remade Canada in its centennial. However, Doug Saunders writes, in its 100th year, the country was officially reflecting realities, ideas and notions of identity that had been brewing beneath the surface for two decades

Montreal’s Expo 67 in April, 1967.

Each month this year, Globe writers will tell their tale of Canada: what its history, geography, peoples and culture mean in their lives.

As one of the earliest second-century Canadians – my parents missed Expo 67 because I came into the world a few weeks after Confederation entered the triple digits – I can’t really be blamed for believing that everything changed 50 years ago. As well as a silver dollar and a futuristic emblem on my birth certificate, my status as a Centennial baby has accorded me an innate and perhaps exaggerated sense of the importance of that year in Canadian history. Yet to look back from Canada’s 150 th year is to realize that this feeling is not just solipsism: 1967 is the hinge upon which modern Canadian history turns and, in certain respects, the key to understanding the challenges of the next half-century.

Today, we live in the country shaped by the decisions and transformations of 1967, far more than by the events of 1867. Anniversaries are usually symbolic moments of reflection, but Canada’s hundredth was a very real bid to create an almost entirely new country, and, to a large extent, it succeeded. If you spend some time immersed in the Canada of a few years before 1967, and then in the Canada of a few years after, you feel like you’ve visited two countries – the former still colonial, closed, dependent, paternalistic and pretending to be homogeneous, a place whose sleepy streets you’d have to leave if you wanted to make something of yourself; the latter a country of self-invention and iconoclasm, a North American place whose several peoples began to build something much bigger, more complex, but also safer and more educated and urban, and something entirely their own.

Pierre Berton, the historian, famously referred to 1967 twenty years ago as “The Last Good Year” – a book title that appealed to a nostalgic belief in a placid antediluvian Canada that even he admitted had never existed. The centennial euphoria, he argued, gave way in later years to “the very real fear that the country we celebrated so joyously … is in the process of falling apart.”

There’s a better way to express that thought: After the centennial, we started to confront seriously the schisms and divisions and gross inequities that had been masked before beneath a patina of colonial gloss. We would have, over the next 50 years, two secession crises, a battle over our North American economic identity and a hard-fought political reawakening of our indigenous nations. Yet, these were the crucial struggles of becoming a real country, of finding a governing mechanism and a common culture to bring together those long-disparate peoples.

Let me make the case, then, that 1967 was Canada’s first good year. We should spend this year celebrating not the 150 th year of Confederation, but the 50th birthday of the new Canada.

But let me also make the case that our conventional story about the birth of second-century Canada is largely wrong. We like to believe that starting in the late 1960s, a series of political decisions, parliamentary votes, court rulings and royal commissions descended upon an innocent, paternalistic, resource-economy Canada and forced upon it an awkward jumble of novelties: non-white immigration, bilingualism, multiculturalism, refugees, indigenous nationhood, liberation of women and gays, the seeds of free trade, individual rights, religious diversity.

A Nigerian family receive their Canadian citizenship at a ceremony in Kitchener, along with 32 other people from around the world, on Dec. 22.

But the explosions of official novelty that were launched in and around 1967 weren’t a cause; they were an effect of profound changes that had taken place in Canadians themselves during the two decades after the war, in their thinking and their composition and their attitude toward their country, in Quebec and English Canada and in indigenous communities.

Canada was not remade by the decisions of 1967; it was reflected by them, for the first time. What began in 1967 was official Canada beginning to catch up with the real Canada. And that is also the lesson to be carried forward to 2017: Canadians tend to be ahead of their institutions, and every few decades it is time for a dramatic catching up, like the explosion of adjustment we saw in ‘67.

A War of Symbols

The day I emerged from the womb, the hippies were rioting in Toronto’s Yorkville district and Detroit was still smouldering. Vietcong MiGs and U.S. fighters were battling over Hanoi, and All You Need Is Love was the number-one single. It was a volatile and unpredictable moment.

But there were also a great many signs that day of the seismic plates shifting beneath Canada’s festive surface. Consider the ripples of change that took place on the day of my birth, as the centennial bash roared on.

Eight hours after I was born, the directors of the Canadian National Exhibition filed into a banquet hall for their annual luncheon. The exhibition’s president, W.H. Evans, asked them to remain standing to sing the national anthem – and then chaos ensued, as half the audience broke into God Save the Queen before the pianist had struck the first note of O Canada. A debate over Canada’s true national anthem, begun in 1964, had been winding its way through a special House of Commons-Senate joint committee all year and filling the media with debate. It wouldn’t fully be resolved until a law was passed in 1980, and many people (especially in Toronto) still considered the British national anthem “official.”

National symbols remained subjects of heated contention in 1967. The flag debate had officially been resolved two years earlier with the choice of the Maple Leaf, but defenders of the old colonial Red Ensign remained outspoken in Parliament, the press and even at Expo 67. Everything about the way Canada represented itself to the world was up for grabs.

But something deeper was taking place, involving not just the symbols but the realities they represented.

The postwar decades were defined by large-scale decolonization around the world: Across Africa, Asia and the Americas, scores of countries were freeing themselves from centuries of control by European masters, and struggling, sometimes violently, to find ways to represent and govern themselves as independent entities. People were learning to think of themselves not as colonial subjects but as autonomous individuals within self-created states.

In that light, 1967 can only be seen as the apex of Canada’s postcolonial moment. The wars over symbols were one small manifestation of a larger shift.

It’s worth remembering how new this all was. We still remained, in important ways, a colony. In 1967, Canadian citizenship had only existed for 20 years – before January 1, 1947, everyone in Canada was a British subject. The 1947 law creating Canadian citizenship declared in its main clause that “a Canadian citizen is a British subject” (this would remain in place until 1977).

That idea was still hotly defended by many in the Ottawa of 1967: The Progressive Conservative leadership still opposed Canadian citizenship, and the flag, and the anthem. There was still a sizable political faction in Canada who supported the idea that all Canadians were simply a slightly different, less important flavour of British people.

But the great majority of Canadians had moved on – or moved in – and you could see the centennial struggling to catch up with them.

Two, Three, Many Canadas

The morning of my birth, opposition leader John Diefenbaker (still sitting, anachronistically, in the House four years after his prime ministership had ended) denounced prime minister Lester B. Pearson for having declared the previous week that “we are a nation of two founding peoples” (in French, the prime minister went further and called them “nations”).

Mr. Diefenbaker considered this a catastrophic blow to a country he had always insisted was purely British: “Adoption of the two-nation concept,” he explained to his fellow MPs that day, “would lead to the breakdown of confederation.” But he was swimming against his own party’s tide: a few days earlier, a Progressive Conservative policy conference had gone further than the Liberals by concluding that Canada should be seen as a federal state “composed of two founding peoples (deux nations), with historic rights, who have been joined by people from many lands.”

In other words: A hundred years into Confederation, the leader of the official opposition still did not seem to believe that French Canadians existed. The notion that Canada contained more than one language and people was still hotly contested in some circles.

But that era was ending fast. A day later, Ontario Premier John Robarts would announce that his province was to build a system of French-language secondary schools. This was not an act of expansive idealism: He was recognizing the reality of a population, including millions of Francophones outside of Quebec, who were no longer capable of seeing themselves, or their children, as subjects of a homogenizing foreign ruler.

These debates sprawled across Canada’s newspapers and TV screens all year. Everyone taking part in them knew there was a looming transformation about to take place. There was a name for it: “Bi and Bi,” the household name for the mammoth Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the largest and most powerful government inquiry Canada had seen. It had been established by Mr. Pearson in 1963 to find a way to address growing Quebecois disenchantment with a Canada that tended to ignore its French fact, and was widely expected to endorse some version of the “two nations” model so hotly discussed that week.

On Oct. 8, 1967, it released its first report – a national event almost rivalling Expo in its media and political attention. And to the great surprise of many, the idea of Canada as two peoples and nations was not its most dramatic proposal – though it certainly did call for a fully bilingual country. That was expected. What was not expected was the very large part of the report, and the subsequent reports over the next two years, devoted to what the commission’s original mandate had called “Other Cultural Groups.” People who were neither British nor French in identity or origin had become a significant share of the Canadian population during the 20 th century.

And while the commission was clear in calling for two official languages, it found a Canada that could no longer be described as having merely one or two or three founding “peoples,” “nations” or “races” (a term still used to describe English and French communities in 1967). Its implication, not quite spelled out, was that Canada was becoming a place that could no longer be defined by its colonial origins.

Over the next several years, that reality would become impossible to ignore. So that when, in 1971, prime minister Pierre Trudeau first used the word “multiculturalism” to define Canadian policy, it was not simply a political ploy to defuse French-English rivalries and rising separatist sentiment (though it was certainly that). It was an inevitable, and perhaps even somewhat late, recognition of what Canada had already been for a long time.

Unquiet Revolutions

New Year’s Day 1967 began explosively. Literally: A terrorist bomb exploded in a Montreal mailbox, shutting down the city and spreading days of panic. It was one of five terror attacks to be carried out by the Front de libération du Québec that year; 1966 had seen a string of them, and some of the emerging separatist firebrands would spend the centennial year in prison for the deaths they caused.

This was also the year French-Canadians became a distinct political force – or threat, depending on your perspective. That June, French president Charles de Gaulle made his explosive “Vive le Québec Libre” speech in Montreal, and then announced a less-famous program of French foreign aid to Quebec, intended, in paternalistic fashion, “to help the French of Canada maintain and develop their personality.” And then, in October, the Quebec Liberal politician René Lévesque stunned the country by introducing a resolution at his party’s provincial convention calling for a sovereign Quebec. The next year, he would create the Parti Québécois.

Again, this burst of angry Quebecois resistance at the political, diplomatic and criminal level was not a cause but an effect: It was merely the most visible expression of something that had been unfolding in Quebec throughout the postwar years, around a million dinner tables and in thousands of workplaces – a generation who had no patience with either the Catholic authoritarianism that had governed the province for a century or the British paternalism that had relegated French-Canadians to servant-class status. Quebec’s transformation in 1967 was part of not just the postwar wave of postcolonial awakenings, but also part of a wave of post-Catholic moments that swept across Europe and the Americas.

The Quiet Revolution is well known and understood – after all, it would go on to provoke two secession crises, three attempts to rewrite the constitution (one successful) and a new political centre of gravity in Quebec.

Less well understood is the quiet revolution that transformed life in English-speaking Canada. As the University of Quebec historian José Igartua points out, a revolution in English-Canadian identity “took place roughly with the same speed and over the same period as Quebec’s Quiet Revolution … of similar magnitude in the cultural changes it wrought.”

Put simply: By 1967, most English-Canadians no longer thought of themselves as a single people of British identity. “Before 1960,” Prof. Igartua says, “British referents occupied the same dominant place in definitions of English-Canadian identity as Catholicism did in definitions of Quebecois identity; they were an article of faith for most – though, as in Quebec, not for all.”

But that all changed in the 1950s: “Within less than 10 years, these dominant referents had been displaced in both collective identities.”

Today, we tend to remember this quiet revolution in English Canada as “multiculturalism,” and there’s an assumption that it was imposed from above during the Trudeau years – or that it was an idea produced and foisted on Canada by the new non-European immigrants who came in the 1970s. In fact, the rejection of mono-ethnic English Canada had taken place a decade or two before “multiculturalism” became a popular Canadian word. And the change took place in the minds of those British-origin Canadians themselves. What we saw in 1967 was the final death of the old notion of monoculturalism, which by then had lost the support of even those who had been its beneficiaries.

Speaking Up: Original Canadians

The very fact that even the notion of “two Canadas” was controversial in 1967 shows just how deeply first-century Canada had buried its indigenous nations, how little voice or role they had been able to find. Starting a couple decades before Confederation, the First Nations and Inuit peoples of Canada had come to be seen by the country’s colonial rulers as not a partner in nation-building (as they had been before), but a problem to be managed. This, in 1967, was still generally how they were viewed. As Canada celebrated its centennial, “Indians” had only been granted the right to vote seven years before, and the practice of forcing their children to attend residential schools had just passed its late-1950s peak. Until the sixties, their legal status was comparable to that of wildlife.

So the second huge report to stun Canada in October, 1967, somewhat overshadowed at the time by the Bilingualism and Biculturalism blockbuster, but equally destined to shape the future, was another federal study four years in the making. It carried the anodyne-sounding title A Survey of the Contemporary Indians of Canada, but its conclusions, organized by anthropologist Harry Hawthorn, were far from academic.

The Hawthorn Report concluded that the residential school experience was “unpleasant, frightening and painful” for some indigenous children; for others it is “not so much adaptive as maladaptive”; in other words, “their motivation to do well in school drops during their stay there. … They come to see themselves as failures.”

The attempt to turn hundreds of thousands of native kids into “the typical middle-class white child” had stripped indigenous communities of their human and cultural resources and damaged them for generations. Such words had not been heard before in establishment Canada.

But they were a reflection of something indigenous Canadians already knew. The Hawthorn report would set off a cycle of reactions from government and, especially, from First Nations bands (as they came to call themselves a few years later).

It was shortly after this early awakening of 1967 that the Nisga’a Nation of British Columbia would launch their Supreme Court case claiming that the treaties of colonial Canada gave them a constitutional right to their land; the result was a series of crucial court rulings, beginning in 1973, that recognized the treaties and their negotiated rights as fundamental Canadian constitutional documents, a fact that was recognized in the 1982 constitution.

Thirty-seven people from around the world are sworn in as Canadian citizens in Kitchener on December 22, 2016,

Speaking Up: New Canadians

Of all the policy changes of 1967, the one that may have done the most to shape modern Canada and put an end to first-century colonialism was that year’s history-making immigration act. It introduced the modern points system, in which immigrants are selected not by appearance or “character” but by points granted for education, linguistic aptitude and skills relevant to the economy; and most importantly, it eliminated all forms of preference or discrimination based on nationality or race for all categories of immigrants. No longer did white or European immigrants have any advantage. Until the 1960s, racial discrimination had been virtually the entire purpose of Canada’s immigration system.

But this, too, was a change that was far more a reflection of the new Canada than a creator of it. Since the end of the Second World War, Canada had been very badly in need of people: The fast-growing economy was creating vast labour shortages, and the lack of sufficient consumers and taxpayers was crippling Canada’s economy. But very few people in Britain and Western Europe wanted to come to Canada. In 1961, there had been a net loss of Canadian population to other countries (especially the United States).

The “New Canadians,” from outside Protestant Western Europe, had simply become a reality: Through the 1950s, some government officials and MPs had attempted to prevent Southern European Catholics and Eastern European Jews from entering the country as immigrants or refugees, claiming that their values and faiths were incompatible with Canada’s – the same argument that had stopped most immigration to Canada for much of the 20th century.

But this time, the Canadian people and the Canadian economy had won the day: Italians, Hungarians, Indians and Poles had come, even when it was officially not allowed. Immigration policies had been stretched or exempted and refugee-sponsorship systems had been created to get them in. They had settled in sizable numbers in the big cities, and had quickly ceased to be immigrants making a start in Canada but rather Canadians pressing for immigration; by the late 1960s, a restrictive immigration system looked to most Canadians like both an anachronism and an economic liability. Again, 1967 was simply catching up with Canada.

A Nation of One

“There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” was an expression that first appeared in a Globe and Mail editorial on December 12, 1967, using slightly different wording, to denounce the horrendous persecution and imprisonment of gays in Canada. Ten days later, it would be uttered by prime minister Pearson’s young justice minister, Pierre Trudeau, when he announced that homosexuality would no longer be a crime.

The same phrase might just as well have been uttered two weeks earlier, on Dec. 4, when the Pearson government had introduced a bill to legalize divorce. A few years previously, neither of these acts would have been conceivable: Most people would not have questioned the notion that the Canadian state, as the guardian of a supposedly homogeneous society, had a role of ensuring that its subjects remain married and heterosexual, by force if necessary.

But the illusion of homogeneity had long since shattered, and Canadians had become painfully aware that they were not all the same, in sexuality, language, religion, ethnicity, marital status or sex. The colonial mentality of first-century Canada had, in fact, ensured that Canadians were profoundly unequal. In deciding to forge a genuinely Canadian identity, the people of 1967 realized that they had to confront the ugliness behind the illusion.

That led to the third in 1967’s trifecta of history-altering royal commissions. On Feb. 3, after months of pressure from activist groups and the threat of two million people marching on Parliament, Mr. Pearson had launched the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, under the leadership of the formidable journalist Florence Bird. Its report three years later led to foundations of legal and constitutional gender equality: pay equity, equality in hiring, national maternity-leave policy, decriminalization of abortion and a cabinet position devoted to the status of women.

What united the sudden changes in divorce, homosexuality and the mainstream view of women, and made them a crucial and inevitable component of second-century Canada, was that they shifted the focus of the state away from anonymous “subjects” and enforced collective identities, and onto the individual citizen. The rights of individuals had often been dismissed, in colonial Canada, as an undesirable Americanism: They weren’t something we did.

But they were part of an unstoppable cascade of discoveries: Once you begin to question whether Canada is really one homogeneous nation, if it is in fact two nations, or an aboriginal nation and two founding nations, or many nations sharing common values, then your focus has to shift to the individual citizen. The postcolonial mentality meant that women, gays, racial and religious minorities had to be confronted as specific people with specific experiences and expectations.

There is a solid line leading from the events of 1967 to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982: It was impossible to have a Canada of multiple peoples, as we discovered was necessary in the late 1960s, without having a Canada of individual people and their rights. Collective identities continued to exist – they are central to Canada – but after 1967, they were recognized as matters of choice and affinity, not of obligation and legal mandate.

The Second-Century Spiral

Individual rights, Quebecois consciousness, indigenous shared-sovereignty status and cultural plurality weren’t the only inevitable outcomes of the 1967 moment. What Canada witnessed over the next two decades was a self-reinforcing spiral of events that often sprung directly from the centennial-era awakening of a postcolonial consciousness.

For example, one of the consequences of Canada’s colonial period had been a strain of anti-Americanism, manifesting itself both culturally and economically. The U.S. border had been walled up with tariff barriers and British Empire favouritism since Confederation (despite a brave but failed effort by prime minister Wilfrid Laurier to knock it down).

Mr. Pearson’s predecessor, Mr. Diefenbaker, had struggled to retain a British Canada both in culture and symbols, and also in economy: Ten years earlier, he’d attempted to build postwar trade ties with the old motherland with a proposed Canada-Britain free-trade deal and to require Canadians to spend 15 per cent of their money on UK exports.

This ran aground when Mr. Diefenbaker discovered that Britain was far more interested in having free trade with its European neighbours than it was in its former colonies – and by the simple fact that neither Canada’s economy nor large parts of its culture had much to do with Britain any more. So free trade with the United States, which emerged from the Liberals in the late 1970s and became a reality under the Progressive Conservatives after a fraught election in 1988, was a fairly certain outcome of the seismic shifts that manifested themselves in 1967.

As was a shift away from an economy devoted to agriculture and resource extraction. That had been Canada’s main purpose during its first century: Until the postwar decades, it was widely taken for granted that Canada’s central role was to provide resources and food (along with soldiers) to Britain. In fact, as the historian R.W. Sandwell found in her study Canada’s Rural Majority, as a consequence of this role, Canada remained a largely rural country for decades longer than the United States and other Western countries (Canada’s rural population did not begin to fall until 1976).

You can see how the spiral unfolded: To get away from the wood-hauling and water-hewing game, Canada needed to stop seeing the United Kingdom as its main economic client.

That, in turn, meant it needed to open its borders with the United States and start seeing itself as North American. And for that to work, it needed to start attracting the sort of immigrants who were entrepreneurial and wanted to stay, and reach beyond its colonial borders. Once this had happened, Canada could no longer see its citizens as an undifferentiated mass of British subjects, but as members of disparate communities and as individuals. And doing that meant that indigenous communities could no longer be treated like problems to be managed, but as equal partners in a shared territory. And all these things required a set of new laws and institutions that made the pieces of the new Canada fit together.

Once the bucket of Canadian identities had been kicked over by 1967’s spasm of centennial joy, a cascade of new realities, new ideas, new institutions and new ways of living came flooding out. Fifty years later, we are still awash in their novelty. We are the children of 1967, the entirely new people who came out of that container.



Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Canadians had to travel with a United Kingdom passport before 1947. In fact, while Canadians were British subjects, there were Canadian passports from 1921 onwards.



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