Canada's 150th is a big meh for a lot of folks. But it brings back floods of memories for me. I was around for the Centennial in 1967. It was the year that Canada came of age – and so did I.
That summer I took off for Expo 67, along with three or four of my girlfriends. The school year was over and, unlike my friends, I was not going back for Grade 13. I buried my hateful black Oxfords deep in the garbage can and met my friends down at Union Station to catch the train to Montreal. To our amazement, our parents had allowed us to go unchaperoned. We were on our own, delirious with joy and free. It was the beginning of my adult life. I was 17.
Fifty million people came to Expo that summer. It was among the greatest world's fairs ever. It was hopeful and futuristic, at a time when people still believed the future would be better than the past. It had a monorail, a supermodern housing complex called Habitat and a dazzling multimedia display at the Czech pavilion. Best of all, it had French food, French liquor laws and French boys. I have a snapshot of my girlfriends, standing on the front steps of a lovely old apartment building in their summer dresses, laughing. It was the best of times.
Expo made Canadians proud. We weren't a backwater any more. We were cool and sophisticated, and the world admired us. I dreamed of living in a place like Habitat one day.
Until then, my opinion of Canada had been rather sour. I was an accidental immigrant, ripped from my leafy American suburb by adults with agendas that were not mine. In 1964 I landed abruptly in Don Mills, a raw suburb on the outskirts of Toronto, where we lived in a cramped townhouse. My memories from those years are all grey. Toronto was then a dull and stuffy outpost of a faded empire – a grey city with grey people and dreary taverns that reeked of stale beer. The United States had glamour and the Kennedys. Canada was a grey country run by grey men.
The year 1967 changed all that. By then we had the flag and health care and a proud nationalism had begun to assert itself. One day in English class, our teacher – a born subversive – smuggled in some poems by somebody named Leonard Cohen. (The curriculum monitors would have had the vapours.) I learned, to my astonishment, that poetry – and poets – could be sexy. This revelation changed my life. I bought his first album, and played it until it wore out. I still fantasize that Suzanne could just as well have been me.
By then, I had started hanging out in Yorkville on the weekends. I desperately wanted to be hip. The fact that there was finally some place you could go where people were hip – in Toronto! – radically altered my perception of the city. An unknown singer named Joni Mitchell was playing at the Riverboat. A young musician named Gordon Lightfoot had just written the Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Their songs, along with Leonard Cohen's, became the music of my Canadian life.
Up to that point I had ignored Canadian politics, which struck me as extremely boring. That changed too. The grey old men, Diefenbaker and Pearson, had faded away. Sweeping law reforms introduced by a brash young cabinet minister named Pierre Trudeau decriminalized homosexuality and abortion. "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," he said. Canada was suddenly among the most progressive countries in the world. By 1968, he was prime minister.
It's hard to overstate the impact of Pierre Trudeau on our sense of national pride. The world gushed over our dynamic new young leader. Teenage girls went gaga, as did their mothers. In contrast to Justin's boyish charm, Pierre's allure contained a touch of menace. You wouldn't want to mess with him, as the FLQ found out.
What made Canada's Centennial so important was the sense that we had finally come into our own. We'd shed the last vestiges of colonialism and were at last a modern country. We finally had a flag, and we were proud to wave it. Today, such patriotic fervour is out of style. It's considered slightly suspect, unseemly, even dangerous. After all, nationalism can lead to Brexit, fear of immigrants, and even Donald Trump. Best not to go there. Best to celebrate our anniversary with a giant yellow duck.
We are also in a highly self-critical age, more focused on our sins than our virtues. Maybe Canada's 150th is just a settler anniversary, or just an Anglo one – something to regret, not celebrate. If there is a path to truth and reconciliation, we don't seem to have found it yet. Maybe the whole idea of "we" is ridiculous. Maybe we are just an uneasy mix of identity groups, with sharply different narratives of history and varying degrees of unearned privilege.
I don't feel that way.
After the summer of 67, I spread my wings and flew off to a big U.S. college, where I studied poetry and art and great books written by dead white men. I didn't know which country was really home. But eventually my mind made itself up on its own and I moved back to Toronto. I rented a crummy apartment near Yorkville and never looked back. Sure, our country isn't perfect. Sure, we can do better. But that optimism of 1967 has never left me. For all its flaws, there is no place I'd rather call home.