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Canada’s 1960s

Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era


Canada in the 1960s was deeply affected by the civil rights and anti-war struggles in the United States. It was likewise caught up in the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements that swept the world. But in this new and commanding work, Bryan Palmer demonstrates that Canada had its own 1960s which left a deep mark on our history. At the beginning of that decade the ideology of British imperialism or the colonial-settler mentality of Canada’s ruling class and its most powerful ethnic group was still in place. The upheavals of the 1960s led to its collapse. Nothing emerged to replace it.

The Tory prairie populist John Diefenbaker was in power as the decade opened. Diefenbaker’s government was undermined by a crisis of the Canadian dollar, the fiasco of the Avro Arrow, and the Bomarc missile affair – all three of which revealed the growing influence of the United States and the waning of the British connection. The “No sex, please, we’re British” posture was shaken by the scandal of the Gerda Muntziger affair that marked the beginning of the end of the Diefenbaker government. Palmer masterfully uses the ludicrous cause célèbre of the German “adventuress” Muntziger and the doomed career of the great Canadian white hope, the Croatian heavyweight boxer George Chuvalo, to suggest how increasingly difficult it was to uphold the straight-face of the traditional British imperial ideology in the face of an influx of millions of new immigrants into Canadian society in pursuit of different agendas.

Sex reared its head in the body politic in the Muntziger case. It came nakedly into the open in the selling of Pierre Elliot Trudeau as Liberal leader and prime minister of Canada. Trudeau’s renewed federalism and bilingualism, it was hoped, could contain Québec separatism and provide a new integrating national ideology in the face of a waning British imperialism. Lessons in creating the Trudeau image were taken from the master intellectual spinmaster of the decade, Canada’s Marshall Mcluhan, with his notions of “the medium is the Mussolini.”

But Liberal/liberal offerings of sex, maple leaf flags, Expos, and the opportunity of bilingual conversation could not hold back a rising tide of discontent among youth, workers, women, Québec nationalists, and Aboriginals. Establishment unease over juvenile delinquency gave way to panic as youth hi-jinks and discontent came to focus around more and more riotous annual outbursts against that most British and imperial of holidays, Victoria Day, in both Ontario and Québec but especially in the latter. From the early sixties youth rebellion increasingly assumed political and cultural forms. By 1967-68 nihilistic rioting was transformed into be-ins, sit-ins, and love-ins in the quest for new forms of identity which challenged that ancient British convention-the Puritan work ethic.

Young male workers, chafing like the rest of youth at the bit of authority, led the way in a rash of wildcat strikes in the years 1964-66. The target of this labour unrest was not merely management and government but a labour bureaucracy which had been co-opted into the Keynesian compromises of the 1950s. Unrest in the labour sector merged with militant nationalism in Québec. It issued in a series of nationalist breakaways from the old-guard internationals in both Québec and English Canada which were under American control.

The new Left, which took form in English Canada by the mid-sixties, was at first not discernibly different from its American counterparts-participatory politics, grassroots organizing, and anti-war and pro-civil rights campaigning. Palmer emphasizes that it is impossible to capture the great diversity of this movement as it evolved in the late 1960s. Nonetheless three themes capture his attention: Marxism, left nationalism, and feminism. The late sixties and early seventies witnessed a mind-boggling explosion of Marxist-Leninist political parties whose very divisions embodied the fundamentally anarchist spirit of the times. The siege of Concordia University and the Simon Fraser University political economy department marked high points of revolutionary-inspired conflict. As understanding of Marxism deepened, anti-imperialism fuelled a left nationalism that found an echo in Canadian society at large, gave rise to the Waffle, and led to a flirtation of some of this left with such hardened fundamentalist nationalists like George Grant and Robin Matthews.

The profound thought that lies behind this narrative, its immense range and the ability of the author to give the narrative form merit high praise. The depth of research and Palmer’s deep sense of Canadian history will make this Marxist text the basis of all further work on the period.

Yet Palmer’s discussion of feminism is somewhat thin and his treatment of gays and lesbians and the ecological movement virtually non-existent. Perhaps Palmer felt that they were matter which only came to the fore in the following decade-the period of single issues and identity politics. In any case it would have been helpful to trace the roots of Canadian feminism back to the suffrage movement, Communist Party front groups, and the Voice of Women. He singles out the theorizing of Margaret Benston as an important Canadian contribution to the development of feminist theory as well as initiatives on behalf of birth control and abortion rights. One wonders at which point the ongoing and critical issue of childcare began to take form in Canada.

Palmer’s brings his work to a conclusion with two eloquent and stunning chapters on radical nationalism in Québec and the rise of Red Power. In both cases he traces the roots of these movements far back revealing both the historical depth of oppression and the ferocity of the resistance that surfaced in the sixties. Radical nationalism struck deep root in the Québec working class beyond the power of the Canadian state under Trudeau to deflect. Faced with apprehended insurrection in the October Crisis of 1970 it was forced to repress what it could not politically bring under control. With this body-blow by the state, the radicalism of the sixties lost its breath. Meanwhile the crystallization of Aboriginal consciousness that occurred at the same moment swept aside Trudeau’s attempts to find a “liberal” solution to the Aboriginal “problem” and went on to gel into an increasingly successful protracted war against the state and capitalist exploitation of the landmass of Canada. In his conclusion Palmer shows that liberal attempts to repair the ideological dismantling of the 1960s remain unconvincing and ring hollow. According to him, “We live, to this day, in the infinitely creative and politically destabilizing wreckage of a period in Canada’s past that brought down with decisive finality what needed dismantling.”

This article appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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