A friend arrived at my door this week with a box of bulbs for red-and-white-striped tulips specially designed to mark Canada's 150th birthday. The idea is that I will plant them this weekend and then next May – squirrels willing – I will be making my own little front-yard contribution to the sesquicentennial celebrations. I guess that places me among the 75 per cent of Canadians who told pollsters they are looking forward to Canada 150. And why not? What kind of dreary soul tells a pollster they aren't looking forward to a birthday party?
And yet, some skepticism seems in order as the federal Department of Canadian Heritage begins to unveil its party plans, starting with New Year's Eve fireworks across the country on Dec. 31, 2016, and proceeding with a yearlong flurry of storytelling, art-making and canoe-racing. At a Toronto event last week, when Candian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly introduced the 38 "signature" events on which her department is spending $100-million of its $220-million sesqui budget, organizers suggested they want Canada 150 to be "transformative," to leave legacies and to make 2017 "the best year ever." Really? A national shore cleanup, a tall-ship gathering or a series of moderated conversations on how to improve Canada are going to significantly and permanently change the place?
The buzzwords set a pretty high standard of impact for projects that are being tied to four themes: pride in diversity and inclusiveness, youth engagement, reconciliation with indigenous peoples and stewardship of the natural environment. Some of the projects seem powerfully specific: Two Quebec TV producers are proposing to shoot a reality series in which 10 people will cross the Atlantic in the same conditions as those who first sailed to New France; the Toronto International Film Festival has curated a list of the top 150 Canadian films and will screen them across the country. Others are less well-defined proposals to involve Canadians, especially young ones, in various efforts to tell stories, make art or set social goals. (These are the big national initiatives, by the way; another $100-million is being dispersed in much smaller grants to hundreds of community or regional projects. Every project is expected to have other funding partners in addition to Canadian Heritage.)
What effect will all this well-meaning cultural, environmental and athletic activity produce? As the optimistic descriptions washed over me, I had to remind myself that public celebrations of a national birthday can indeed be transformative: just look at centennial year. To author and historian Pierre Berton, it may have been "the last good year," as he would subtitle his history of 1967 published in 1997, but to those of us who were very young in the Summer of Love, the centennial celebrations shone a warm light into our childhoods that we have carried with us through life.
My friend with the tulips was convinced her baby sister had missed the event of a lifetime because she was too young to attend Expo 67 in Montreal. And indeed, both that world fair and the many centennial events across the country convinced us that we lived in a place of remarkable dynamism and opportunity.
The 1970s may have brought economic woes and constitutional squabbles, but they also oversaw the second great flowering of Canadian culture – the first was the period of national institution-building in the 1950s – that produced everything from our international literary presence to our national design industries and our local theatre movement.
Canadian self-confidence was palpable after '67, but today nobody would consider spending billions building artificial islands in the St. Lawrence or inviting all Canadians to gather in one place.
In today's dollars, Expo 67 cost $2-billion but was said to have generated double that in revenue for Montreal and the country. (The price tag seems impossibly low by 2016 standards, considering the Vancouver Winter Olympics cost $7-billion in 2010.) For 2017, the federal government has set aside a modest $300-million for sesquicentennial infrastructure in addition to the $220-million Canadian Heritage has at its disposal.
Maybe we're less ambitious these days; we are certainly more diffuse in our interests and identities. We are a population wired for information, yet diverse of values; we are skeptical of nationalism, but we know Canada is blessed. So what would a successful birthday party look like in 2017?
Some day, will we be able to identify an energy that flowed from Canada 150? Will there be a postmillennial generation that will be perceived to be the innovative offspring of 2017? Will Canadians be able to trace their healthy relations with prosperous indigenous communities back to ideals of the sesquicentennial year? The Canada 150 tulips will be long dead before the answers are known.