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'The bloody thing worked."

Those were the words that, 40 years ago this morning, launched the Confederation Train in Victoria on a cross-country trip that would be hard to imagine today.

Of course, 1967 was also a year hard to imagine these days.

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Those words were uttered, with considerable relief, by Leslie J. Maiden, the project officer behind the train that was supposed to fire up Canadians about their country during Centennial Year.

Things had gone rather well for the official launch. The heavy rain had let up and Secretary of State Judy LaMarsh, not known for her patience, had pushed the little green button that was to send out the train's new signal: the first four notes of O Canada.

The bloody thing worked perfectly.

And with that, the train was open for visitors -- some two million of them eventually lining up to walk through the six-car train as it made 63 stops over nine provinces. It would have been all 10, but Newfoundland had a different railway gauge.

There was so much foot traffic it tore up some of the flooring in the cars.

There were so many requests for the whistle to be blown, government regulators decreed it should blast only once a day, at 9 o'clock each morning.

The train was twinned with eight sets of tractor-trailers carrying much the same displays and message and, by year's end, more than 10 million had toured the train and caravans.

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All 10 million of them, roughly half the country, were being asked to reflect on "What is Canada? What is the future of Canada?"

Forty years later, we still haven't answered that one, but there is no doubt that back in Centennial Year Canadians were pumped about both present and future.

The train was but one small part of the year-long celebrations. The six cars took visitors from prehistory through the ice ages, from first arrivals to European exploration. Images told the stories of Confederation, immigration, war, depression and prosperity, with the final car a tribute to Canadian children.

Hidden in the back car, and paid $35,000, was Bobby Gimby, a Saskatchewan-born composer of commercial jingles for such products as Chiclets and Maxwell House coffee. Gimby had penned a simple song -- Ca-na-da -- that stuck in the head the way pine pitch sticks to the hands. Sometimes dressed in a Pied Piper costume, complete with a heraldic trumpet, Gimby would lead a parade of singing youngsters at every stop where he appeared.

Children, suitably, were the stars of Centennial Year. The national Centennial Baby, born at 4:08 a.m. on Canada Day, was a little girl from Ladysmith, B.C., called Pamela Anderson. The star of Baywatch and hotel-pay-per-view movies turns 40 this July 1, and won't be the only one feeling just a tad old, looking back.

Who, after all, can even remember the mackerel on the dime?

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Centennial Year began with Prime Minister Lester Pearson having trouble lighting the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill.

And yet it may well be that no year ever burned more brightly for Canadians.

Certainly not in little Bowsman, four hours north of Winnipeg, where the community celebrated the completion of its new sewage-treatment facility with a parade of more than half the town's outhouses and then torched them in front of 400 cheering flush-toilet converts.

There was, of course, Expo 67 and the opening of the National Arts Centre, but there were also the Centennial Projects, the commission overseeing the country's 100th birthday agreeing to underwrite some 2,860 of them.

"The construction industry and virtually every community across the nation [as well as Montreal]benefited from Centennial projects," The Beaver reported a decade ago on the effect of Expo 67. "568 recreational centres, 538 parks, 442 community halls, 188 municipal buildings, 144 libraries, museum and art galleries, as well as seven theatres, one UFO landing pad, and one statue of a leprechaun riding a turtle."

Pierre Berton called 1967 The Last Good Year. It wasn't perfect -- French President Charles de Gaulle's visit was a fiasco and the Confederation Train was met by a small riot when it reached Montreal -- but it was probably as close to perfect as this rocky little-big country has ever been.

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"A better world seemed to beckon," Berton wrote in his 1997 book on the Centennial. " . . . In 1967 we looked forward with anticipation. In 1997 we look backwards with regret."

That was on the 130th birthday. This year, on the 140th, it is less clear whether people are looking forward with anticipation, backward with regret or forward with trepidation, given the state of the world more so than the country.

It is safe to assume, however, that the 2007 equivalent of a Confederation Train would be a website where the traffic wouldn't affect the flooring.

But it wouldn't be the same, would it?

The important thing is that the bloody thing is still working.

Not perfectly, but working.

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And that alone is worth celebrating.

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

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