Remembering Canada’s Centennial Year

I was in Grade 10 in 1967. For some reason my school provided high school students with tree saplings to take home and plant. Why they were willow trees instead of maple trees I have no idea. Mine has been growing ever since, and it was a monster of a thing when I drove past it on Willow Street (a coincidence, I’m sure) in Hantsport, Nova Scotia, last fall.

When some of that property was still owned by my family I used to walk up the lawn and pay it a visit, but those days are gone now.

That the tree planting was one of the many activities tied into the Centennial celebrations is confirmed on page 48 of The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country, by Tom Hawthorn.

I tell this story because of the first six words of this book’s title. My town had celebrations and a parade as usual on Dominion Day (as it was known until 1982), but I can’t recall folks losing their minds. At that point the elder generations in our home were still adjusting to 1965’s adoption of the maple leaf flag, which my grandparents didn’t like. It would be more than a decade later before “O Canada” displaced “God Save the Queen” as our national anthem in 1980, though most of my generation was probably surprised to find that it hadn’t already done so since it had been in common use since 1939.

Hawthorn’s book, however, shows that there were a fair number of people and places that got far more excited about Canada’s 100th birthday. He feels strongly that the Centennial Year changed the country.

“The Canada of 1968 was a profoundly different place than the Canada of 1966,” he writes in his preface.

How did this happen? Chapter one, called “The Giddy Year,” begins with this statement:

“For one happy, giddy, insane year, a normally reserved people decide to hold a blockbuster party from coast to coast to coast.”

The nine chapters are thematically grouped to show off the types of celebrations that took place.

The entire narrative is bookended by chapters that refer to Expo 67, while in between are Official Centennial, 100 Years of Gratitude, Happy Birthday(s), Music and Festivals, Military Moments and Sports.

It’s a very active book, with lots of photographs, colour tinted sidebar snippets, and dozens of amusing stories about the things people did.

Terry Fox was probably inspired by the tales of people who walked, rode and drove across the country in both directions in 1967.

There is an epilogue chapter of Ongoing Reminders, examples of structures or events that continue to exist since that year.

I think my one critique would be that I don’t see how anyone could discuss Expo 67 without showing that delightful cartoon by Montreal cartoonist Aislin of the pregnant Jean Drapeau telling us all that the event could no more have a deficit than a man could have a baby.

As for lingering effects, surely nothing could be more obvious than the legalization and proliferation of lotteries, the very first of which was the one created to pay for that “impossible” Expo deficit.

It’s a cheerful book, produced in a high quality trade paperback edition. I’m still not sure about the first part of the title, but it was certainly a year when Canadians began to pay more attention to being Canadian. That’s not in dispute.

The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country by Tom Hawthorn was published by Douglas and McIntyre last month, and is 195 pages. It retails for $20.95 and is also available as an e-book.

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