Even Baby Boomers are weary of TV specials celebrating ’60s singers and bands, most of which, let’s face it, look and sound excruciatingly sexist and corny. And my first reaction to hearing that The Beatles One has been re-reissued was to question whether after owning vinyl, eight-track, cassette, CD, and then downloading, that Paul McCartney really wants me to buy Hey Jude yet again. Poor Sir Paul must need the money.
Sir Paul (http://www.dailymail.co.uk)
The greater point is that the ‘60s matter and, sorry Paul and boomers everywhere, not just the 1960s. No matter the millennium, the ’60s decade always offers remarkable up, down, sideways, and significant change. For some reason, the ‘60s is when old assumptions and rules are thrown asunder and Canada rockets ahead in a new direction.
France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, declared Canada a French province. Later in the decade, French explorers Radisson and Groseilliers followed Native guides all the way to Lake Superior and Hudson’s Bay. Because of a spat with officious French officials, they claimed it all for England. Their adventures led to the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the world’s first multi-national corporation. The chess pieces were thus set for a bloody two hundred year French-English grudge match; a struggle that many Quebecois insist is still on.
In 1760, in the shadow of the Conquest, where a small British army defeated an even smaller French one outside Quebec City, Montreal fell. With the broader world war finally over, in 1763 French negotiators traded cold and troublesome Quebec for the warm and prosperous island of Guadeloupe. Canada became a British colony with a French people. Native nations who had allied themselves with one side or the other were promised that their land would remain theirs. It was a lie. Shortly afterwards, gifts were made of smallpox-infested blankets in a brutal act of biological warfare.
The United States was butchering itself in a Civil War that would see over 600,000 dead and 40,000 Canadians serve. Partly as a result of all that death, and fear of what would happen when the killing ended, Canada was born. John A. Macdonald and others from the broke and dysfunctional Canadian province loaded a ship with great food and better booze and crashed a Charlottetown conference to urge Maritime delegates to think bigger. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick signed on. Canada was more dream than fact but the dreamers emerged from their ’60s decade with a vision as grand as the land.
The decade saw the dream reimagined. A new Bill of Rights said citizenship was based not on blood but law. Native people were afforded the right to vote as a tentative step toward righting centuries of wrong. The establishment of official bilingualism expressed a desire to descend the Tower of Babel. A distinctive new flag and Montreal’s Expo ’67 World’s Fair unleashed a patriotic tsunami. In 1967, Canada’s 100th birthday, the Toronto Maple Leafs did what they have not managed since and won the Stanley Cup. Canadians decided that everyone’s health was everyone’s concern and created a national system whereby we each pay a little to help those who need a lot – it’s a family thing.
New programs sought to end the sorry fact that generations of children could graduate without ever having read a Canadian book, seen a Canadian movie, or heard a Canadian song – and oh the songs. We could duck into seedy bars and pretentious coffee houses to hear kids like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Randy Bachman, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Robbie Robertson, Gordon Lightfoot, and more and more. Canadian kids could hear a top ten song on the radio all week and then dance to that very band in their high school gym on Friday night. The songs, along with the words of Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, Margret Laurence, and more invited us to more deeply consider eternal bonds.
Joni Mitchell (www.biography.com)
The 1960s west reverberated a hundred-year-old echo. It was in 1869 that Metis leader Louis Riel demanded respect and a recognition that the people of the west owned the west. Prime Minister Macdonald agreed to nearly all Riel’s demands and a new province was born. Sir John then set out to sweep Native nations from the plains and we still feel the pain and shame of that attempted cultural genocide.
By the end of the 1960s, thousands of Canadians were, as Gordon Lightfoot would sing, Alberta bound. Oil was gold and the rush was on. Cornerbrook accents filled Edmonton bars and cheques were mailed home to Halifax and St. John’s from wildcatting rigs and Wild West barracks. Politicians scrapped, fat cats plundered, and Canadians did as always – the best they could.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if we were in buckskins or bell bottoms, starched collars or tie dye shirts. It was another turbulent ‘60s – the decade that always seems to matter. Maybe before the next ‘60s arrives we’ll be like Canadian Alex Trebic and have all the answers or at least be like Montreal’s Leonard Cohen and know the right questions. By the next ‘60s we may have learned how to live more peacefully with each other and gently on the land.
If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking my other columns as http://www.johnboyko.com